Key to Cypriot plane crash may be in final minutes

  • World
  • Wednesday, 17 Aug 2005

By Brian Williams

ATHENS (Reuters) - Investigators believe the key to discovering what caused a Cypriot plane to crash in Greece, killing all 121 people on board, may be found in the flight's final 23 minutes. 

On Wednesday, four days after the Sunday tragedy, there were as many questions as answers about why Helios Airways Boeing 737 flight from Larnaca to Prague, with a stop in Athens, crashed into mountains near Athens. 

Autopsy findings so far have indicated that all 115 passengers and six crew were either dead or unconscious before the crash from a drop in cabin pressure and lack of oxygen. 

"All the (26 autopsied) individuals, including the co-pilot and two stewardesses, died from multiple injuries to the body. They were alive when the plane crashed," coroners announced on Tuesday saying they expected the same findings on other victims. 

Some involved in the probe are looking for clues as to what went wrong at 34,000 feet by examining the 23 minutes before the plane went down. 

During that time F-16 pilots whose planes were flying alongside the doomed aircraft said they could not see the pilot, the co-pilot was visible slumped in his seat unconscious, and two unknown people were in the cockpit apparently trying to fly the plane. 

Greek and Cyprus media have been in a frenzy of speculation, giving multi-pages each day to often contradictory information and theories of what happened. 

Was it a stewardess or steward with a private pilot licence in the cockpit; was it both of them; did efforts to bring the plane back under control cause the crash; did the plane just run out of fuel after circling for nearly an hour on auto pilot? 

Conspiracy theories also abound. 

Why has the pilot's body not been found; why was the co-pilot called in at the last minute for the flight; why has video and testimony not been released of two F-16 pilots sent to investigate the plane when there was no radio contact? 

The wildest scenarios, all vehemently denied, involve Greece shooting down the plane to stop it crashing into Athens. There is also a Hollywood-like script of a killer impersonating the pilot, slitting the throat of the co-pilot, setting the plane on course for Athens and leaping from the plane in a parachute. 

Yiannos Charalambous, son of co-pilot Pambos Charalambous who was buried in Nicosia on Wednesday, said his father had kept a diary of his time flying with Helios which was in a leather bag he always carried with him. 

"If I could get my hands on that bag much would be revealed," the son told reporters at the burial. 

Disagreement has also broken out between Greek and Cypriot medical examiners about conduct of autopsies and too hasty release of information to a hungry and sensationalist media. 

Former Cyprus government forensic pathologist Marios Matsakis told Reuters autopsy findings announced so far have been too hasty, premature and contradictory. 

"Statements by forensic pathologists in Athens said that people on board were alive at the time of the crash, based on the appearance of organs," Matsakis, a member of the European Parliament, said in a telephone interview. 

"It was premature to make such statements without waiting for full investigations to take place. Toxicological and other specialised tests have to be done," he said. 

"I feel that this practice of every day making a statement about findings is wrong. I am suggesting calling someone from the European Union to come and give a second opinion." 

Helios, Cyprus's first private carrier, has also come under intense pressure for its safety record with former passengers almost daily complaining to the media of past scares including failure of air conditioning and cabin pressure. 

Cypriot police are going through the airlines maintenance and other records in case the investigation of the crash leads to criminal charges. 

Helios, established in 1999 and owned by Libra Holidays Group, one of Britain's top independent holiday tour operators, has defended its record but revealed the crashed plane had a previous cabin pressure problem. 

It said last December the plane had to swiftly descend from 34,000 feet --- the height at which the plane was known to be in trouble last Sunday -- to 11,000 feet during a flight from Warsaw to Larnaca. 

(Additional reporting by Philip Pangalos and Jean Christou in Nicosia) 

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