Blackened bodies, tattered luggage and smouldering debris lay scattered among the pine trees in a scenic Greek valley today after a Helios Airways flight slammed into a mountainside and filled the air with acrid smoke.
Constantinos Michas, a resident of Grammatiko near the ancient city of Marathon, was one of the first on the scene.
“I took my car and went straight to the mountain … I saw about 80 dead bodies, some were children,” he said. ”There were some body parts but most were just as their mother made them.”
The only piece of the plane that remained intact was the tail section emblazoned with an ancient Greek symbol of the sun that ended up on a dirt road.
The plane – carrying 121 people, about a third of them children – broke up into at least three pieces.
Bodies, luggage and parts of the plane were scattered over 12 acres of hillside. There were no survivors.
As police cordoned off part of the crash sites with bright orange tape, firefighting planes and helicopters swooped overhead to battle a brush fire started by the crash, which rekindled at the site throughout the day.
One eyewitness described the instant the Boeing 737 smashed into the mountain flanked by two F-16 fighter jets sent to intercept the passenger plane after it failed to respond to radio signals.
“We saw some fighter jets flying very low and after a few minutes we heard a very loud noise and saw pieces of the plane flying in the air,” said Spyros Papachristou.
The pilots of the F-16s said they saw the jet’s co-pilot slumped over the controls and the pilot was not in the cockpit.
Bits of flesh, clothing, and luggage were scattered around the wreckage, which started brush fires around the area.
“There is wreckage everywhere,” Grammatiko Mayor George Papageorgiou said. “Things here are very difficult, they are indescribable.”
The crash occurred on the eve of a main religious holiday in Greece and Cyprus - a public holiday devoted to the Virgin Mary. A number of black-robed Greek Orthodox Christian were on the scene.
A fleet of 15 ambulances relayed the bodies to the town of Grammatiko, 25 miles north of Athens.
Crash scene investigators wearing surgical masks said most bodies appeared to be intact, with some badly burned.
In Cyprus, President Tassos Papadopoulos declared three days of official mourning. In Greece, Prime Minister Costas Caramanlis returned to Athens from a holiday on the Aegean island of Tinos.
Greece’s main opposition leader George Papandreou visited the scene. “This is extremely difficult work, collecting bodies and putting out these fires. It appears it was mechanical damage but it’s too early to say,” he said.