CAIRO – The weekend's hot balloon crash in Texas has been a grim reminder of a similar but deadlier accident in Egypt three years ago, when 19 foreign tourists burned to death or jumped to their deaths from the burning balloon as their sightseeing sunrise flight over the famed temples of the ancient city of Luxor drew to a close.
There were no survivors among the 16 people aboard the balloon that crashed in central Texas Saturday, the worst such disaster in U.S. history. Authorities there say the balloon hit high-tension power lines before crashing into a pasture near Lockhart, about 60 miles northeast of San Antonio.
"I am very saddened by the accident in Texas," said Moamen Murad Ali, the pilot of the Luxor balloon who suffered burns over 70 percent of his body as he tried to put out the fire that consumed the balloon in just a few minutes, killing 19 foreign tourists, who included French, British, Belgian and Japanese nationals.
The death toll surpassed what was believed by ballooning experts to be the deadliest accident in the sport's 200-year history: In 1989, 13 people were killed when their hot air balloon collided with another over the Australian outback near the town of Alice Springs.
Recounting the final minutes of the 2013 flight in a telephone interview with The Associated Press Monday, Ali said the balloon was tantalizingly close to the ground when the fire first broke out. "I yelled 'jump' to the passengers, but only one, a British man, did."
He and Ali were the only survivors.
With the balloon lighter and the fire burning ferociously, the aircraft quickly gained altitude before a gas tank near where Ali stood exploded, hurling him out of the balloon and down to the ground. He suffered severe burns that, according to him, were caused by his tenacious attempts to put out the fire. He was hospitalized for nearly three months while under arrest on charges of negligence.
After months of questioning, he said, Ali was eventually put on trial but was acquitted. Now, more than three years after the accident, he says he still needs one or two more plastic surgeries which he cannot afford.
"I have spent a great deal of money on medical treatment. The balloon company let me go and no one really came forward to help me with the expenses," he said.
"When I decided that everyone should jump, I knew that they would have all survived. I could have jumped myself, but I was too preoccupied with putting out the fire, which was like a monster," he said. "I flew the same balloon the day before and I went through the check list before takeoff. The weather was fine and the wind was fair. Everything is laid out clearly for me and the ground crew. There is no room for error."
At the time of the accident, investigators said the balloon was in the process of landing when a cable got caught around a helium tube and a fire erupted, sending the balloon on an ascent and detonating a gas canister. The balloon plunged about 300 meters (1,000 feet) to the ground, crashing in a sugar cane field, they said. Balloon flights, a common recreational tourist activity in Luxor, were suspended for several months after the accident.
An aviation official, also at the time of the accident, blamed Ali, saying initial results of the investigation showed he jumped out when the fire began, instead of shutting off valves that would have prevented the gas canister from exploding.
"It was not human error. I did not accidentally hit a building or a power cable. This is just destiny," said the 32-year-old Ali, who said he had clocked 2,000 flying hours prior to the Feb. 26, 2013 accident.
"It was like getting a flat tire while driving. God wills it to happen and it just happens."