- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 14, 2005

GRAMMATIKO, Greece — A Cypriot plane full of vacationers slammed into a hill north of Athens yesterday after at least one pilot lost consciousness from lack of oxygen, killing all 121 persons aboard — more than a third of them children.

The cause of Greece’s deadliest plane crash appeared to be technical failure, resulting in high-altitude decompression, and not terrorism, authorities said. A transportation official said all 115 passengers and six crew members might have been dead when the plane went down.

Helios Airways flight ZU522 was headed from Larnaca, Cyprus, to Athens International Airport when it crashed at 12:05 p.m. near Grammatiko, a town 25 miles north of the Greek capital. Flaming debris, luggage and human remains were strewn across a ravine and surrounding hills.

Family members wept in anguish as they waited at the Athens and Larnaca airports. When news of the crash emerged at Larnaca, relatives swarmed the airline counters, shouting, “Murderers” and “You deserve lynching.”

A man whose cousin was a passenger told Greece’s Alpha television that he received a cell phone text message minutes before the crash.

“He told me the pilots were unconscious. … He said: ‘Farewell, cousin, here we’re frozen,’” Sotiris Voutas said. The message was a reference to it being cold in the plane, a sign of decompression.

There were 48 children aboard, mostly Greek Cypriots, Helios spokesman Giorgos Dimitriou said in Athens.

About a half-hour after takeoff, pilots reported air-conditioning system problems to Cyprus air-traffic control. Within minutes, after entering Greek airspace over the Aegean Sea, the Boeing 737 lost all radio contact. Two Greek F-16 fighter jets were dispatched soon afterward.

When the F-16s intercepted the plane, jet pilots saw the co-pilot slumped over his seat. The captain was not in the cockpit, and oxygen masks dangled inside the cabin, government spokesman Theodoros Roussopoulos said.

He said the jet pilots also saw two persons possibly trying to take control of the plane; it was not clear whether they were crew members or passengers. The plane apparently was on automatic pilot when it crashed, Helios spokesman Marios Konstantinidis said in Cyprus.

“When a pilot has no communication with the control tower, the procedure dictates that other planes must accompany and help the plane land. Unfortunately, it appeared that the pilot was already dead as was, possibly, everyone else on the plane,” Cyprus Transport Minister Haris Thrasou said.

The head of the Greek airline safety committee, Akrivos Tsolakis, said the crash was the “worst accident we’ve ever had.” He said the plane’s black boxes had been recovered, containing data and voice recordings valuable for determining the cause.

“There apparently was a lack of oxygen, which is usually the case when the cabin is depressurized,” Mr. Tsolakis said.

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