Hundreds of Tourists Evacuated From Hotel in Egypt After Britons’ Sudden Death

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CAIRO — A British couple are vacationing at a Red Sea resort in Egypt with their daughter and three grandchildren.

One morning, the man, a 69-year-old English builder, collapses in his hotel room in front of his wife and daughter and is pronounced dead. Hours later his wife, 64, is taken to a hospital where she, too, dies.

The Egyptian authorities insist the couple, seen in pictures as tanned, smiling and healthy-looking, have died from natural causes. But other guests at the hotel complain of upset stomachs from bad food. And their daughter, who was with them during their final hours, says she believes “something suspicious” happened.

The sudden deaths on Tuesday of John and Susan Cooper prompted their travel company to evacuate all of its guests in the hotel on Friday, amid a welter of conflicting accounts from guests, managers and Egyptian officials about what led to the couple’s demise.

Thomas Cook, one of the best-known package holiday companies in Britain, said it was evacuating its complement of 301 guests from the Steigenberger Aqua Magic Hotel in the coastal resort Hurghada as a precaution following reports of a “raised level of illness among guests.”

Hotel management denied that there was an unusual level of sickness, and, like Egyptian officials, insisted that the couple from Lancashire — where Ms. Cooper worked at a Thomas Cook branch — had died from natural causes. But by Friday evening, about half of the 301 guests had been flown out of Egypt, and the remainder had moved to nearby resorts, a Thomas Cook spokeswoman said.

However, about 1,600 other guests remained in the hotel, said Sally Khattab, the hotel’s marketing director. She added that the hotel had recently passed a Thomas Cook audit with flying colors.

The evacuation was a major blow to Egypt’s tourist industry which, despite a modest upswing this year, is struggling to recover from years of political turmoil, plane crashes and Islamist violence that had caused a steep drop in visitors since 2010.

In the past, Egypt’s ability to weather such crises has been hampered by officials’ lack of transparency. On Friday, Egypt’s tourism minister, Rania Al-Mashat, and other officials, citing initial medical reports, insisted that the Coopers had died of natural causes. But some foreign guests had trouble believing them.

On social media, some guests said they had been served tainted food at the hotel or were afraid to eat at its restaurants. Others put forth the theory that the Coopers had died from carbon monoxide poisoning, possibly caused by a faulty air-conditioning unit in their room. Thomas Cook denied the carbon monoxide theory but admitted it had little idea what actually had caused the deaths.

“As a family, we are devastated,” the couple’s daughter, Kelly Ormerod, who had come to the resort with her three children, said in a statement.

Ms. Ormerod told Sky News her parents were in “perfect health” when they went to bed on Monday, with no signs of food poisoning. But when she found them in their room at 11 a.m. the following morning, they were “extremely ill and needed help.”

Her father, who was especially sick, died soon after the arrival of emergency responders.

Five hours later her mother was taken to a hospital, Ms. Ormerod told Sky News.

Egyptian officials described Susan Cooper as having been “in a state of fainting.” After she was pronounced dead an hour later, officials determined that she had died from “a drop in blood circulation and respiratory functions with no criminal suspicions.”

Ms. Ormerod said that her parents had no known health problems. “I watched them die before my very eyes and they had exactly the same symptoms,” she said. “I believe something suspicious has gone on. I don’t believe anyone has entered the room, but something has happened in that room and caused them to be taken away from us.”

The family, she added, was “in utter shock.”

The prosecutor’s office has taken a statement from Ms. Ormerod and ordered autopsies.

In its own statement, the prosecutor’s office appeared to rule out foul play, saying that investigators had found “no evidence of physical violence or resistance” in the couple’s room.

Thomas Cook said it had audited the Steigenberger Aqua Magic Hotel last month, when it received a 96 percent score. Nick Harris of Simpson Millar, a law firm that represents holiday travel claims, said his firm had notice of 20 cases of gastric illness against Thomas Cook at the hotel since 2014.

The hotel’s general manager, Dieter Geiger, said in an email that allegations of increased sickness at the hotel in recent days were “rash speculations.” He referred to the preliminary doctors’ report indicating the Coopers had died from natural causes.

Janette Rawlingson, a guest who arrived at the resort with her two children just as news of the Coopers’ deaths emerged publicly, told the BBC that she should have been given the option to cancel the trip.

“Everybody is really worried,” Ms. Rawlingson said. “The lack of answers from Thomas Cook is really disappointing.”

Ms. Rawlingson said she and her family were concerned about the food at the hotel complex, a group of cream-colored Mediterranean style buildings hugging large pools, water slides and pathways lined with palm trees. “I’ve had an upset stomach overnight,” she said.

Egypt’s tourism industry has been hammered by a series of calamities and terrorist attacks over the years. Since 2010, when overnight stays hit a record 14.1 million, the numbers have been steadily falling, according to data from the United Nations World Tourism Organization. Overnight stays by visitors stood at 5.3 million in 2016, according to the agency.

Tourists were first deterred by the Arab Spring in 2011 and the turmoil of a military-backed takeover in 2013. An Islamic State bomb downed a Russian jetliner filled with tourists in 2015. And there have been a handful of smaller terrorist acts targeting tourists, including a stabbing incident in Hurghada last year.

The 2015 plane bombing caused Britain to halt all direct flights to Egypt’s main Red Sea resort, Sharm el Sheikh, amid security scares. Since then some British tourist traffic has been diverted to Hurghada, which is known for its beaches, scuba diving and package holiday hotels.

Egypt has seen an uptick in tourists in the past few years, in part because of an influx of tourists from China. The government reported a 212 percent increase in tourist revenues, to $5.3 billion in the first nine months of 2017 compared with the same time period in 2016, Reuters reported.

One of the best-known package holiday companies in Britain, Thomas Cook has roots in Egypt. The company’s eponymous founder was a pioneer of mass tourism in the late 19th century and built his reputation partly on boat cruises along the Nile.

But the tour operator faced sharp criticism over safety standards at its resorts after the 2006 deaths of two young siblings from carbon monoxide poisoning on the Greek island of Corfu.

A British inquest into the deaths of the two children, ages 6 and 7, found that the travel company had “breached its duty of care” by failing to prevent their deaths, which officials determined had been caused by a faulty water boiler in their hotel room.

Three people, including the manager of the hotel, were convicted of manslaughter in 2010 and sentenced to seven years in prison.

Follow Declan Walsh and Palko Karasz on Twitter: @declanwalsh and @karaszpalko.

Declan Walsh reported from Cairo, and Palko Karasz from London. Toqa Ezzidin contributed reporting from Cairo.

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Britons’ Deaths Spur Evacuations From Egyptian Resort
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