The Greek government forced its air force's chief to resign today, blaming him for authorities’ slow response to a military helicopter crash that killed 17 people, including a top Greek Orthodox cleric.
Patriarch Petros VII of Alexandria, spiritual leader of the estimated 300,000 Greek Orthodox in Africa, and his entourage were killed on Saturday morning when the Chinook helicopter transporting them to the monastic community of Mount Athos in northern Greece crashed into the sea.
A search and rescue operation was not launched until two hours later. By this morning, a total of nine bodies – including that of the patriarch – had been recovered, according to a statement by the Merchant Marine Ministry.
“The issue of the crash is totally different from the delay in informing about the loss of the helicopter,” Prime Minister Costas Caramanlis said.
“There are responsibilities there. For this reason the defence minister has already asked for the resignation of the air force chief.”
Lieutenant General Panagiotis Papanikolaou resigned later. A government committee is to convene on Monday to appoint a new air force chief.
The army has launched a full-scale investigation into the cause of the crash, and military investigators were searching the sea off the coast of Mount Athos for the helicopter wreckage and the remaining bodies.
A C-130 transport plane, six helicopters, seven coastguard patrol boats and three Navy warships were participating in the search. A submersible robot was expected to be used to search for the downed chopper’s main cabin, authorities said.
The CH-47D Chinook helicopter had been carrying 12 passengers, a four-member crew and their unit commander.
The passengers included Metropolitan Bishop of Carthage Chrysostomos, Metropolitan Bishop of Pelusim Ireneus, and Bishop of Madagascar Nectarios, said Army chief Lieutenant General Nikos Douvas.
“The cause and the conditions of the accident are being investigated by a committee of specialists,” the army said in a statement.
Douvas said the helicopter had been purchased four years ago and was used only to transport state officials.
The all-male enclave of Mount Athos, about 100 kilometres southeast of Thessaloniki, is one of the centrepieces of Orthodox Christianity. Twenty monasteries dot the rugged peninsula – called the “Holy Mountain” in Greek - and many are only accessible by foot or boat.