Greece’s worst plane crash, in which 121 people died yesterday, appeared to have been caused by a sudden drop in oxygen.
The Cypriot airliner carrying 121 people, including 48 children, ploughed into a hill near the ancient city of Marathon, killing everyone on board.
Two F-16 fighter pilots peered into the cockpit of the jet at an altitude of 34,000 feet over the Aegean Sea – and saw nobody at the controls.
The co-pilot was slumped over and the captain was nowhere to be seen.
The fighter pilots, sent to intercept the airliner after radio contact was lost, flew by a second time and saw two people – it is unclear whether they were passengers or crew – apparently trying to take control of the Boeing 737.
Minutes later, Helios Airways flight ZU522 slammed into a pine forest, breaking into pieces as it burst into flames and hurled bodies and debris across the scenic valley.
The tail section was one of the few parts of the plane that remained intact and debris was strewn across two valleys and surrounding hills. Bodies, clothing and luggage were scattered around the wreckage, which triggered brush fires that burned for hours.
The flight was heading to Athens International Airport from Larnaca, Cyprus, when it crashed at about 12.05pm (10.05am Irish time) yesterday, near the coastal town of Grammatiko, about 25 miles north of Athens. The Boeing was due to fly on to Prague, in the Czech Republic.
There were 48 children on board, Helios spokesman Giorgos Dimitriou said at Athens airport and “most of them were Greek Cypriots”. A Czech Republic government official also confirmed that figure.
The F-16s reported that the co-pilot was slumped in his seat and the captain was not in the cockpit, while oxygen masks could be seen hanging from the cabin.
“When they approached they noticed that the co-pilot was collapsed, maybe unconscious, over the controls while the captain was not in his seat,” government spokesman Theodoros Roussopoulos said.
“In the last phase of their close approach they saw two people in the cockpit - who looked like they were trying to regain control of the aircraft.”
Cyprus transport minister Haris Thrasou said the interception was made necessary after communication was lost.
“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,” Thrasou said in Larnaca.
Chris Yates, an aviation analyst with Jane’s Transport, said the all the indications pointed to depressurisation.
“From all the evidence we’ve seen come out today, this plane depressurised very quickly at significant altitude. The co-pilot didn’t have time to put the oxygen mask on,” he said.
“It’s possible some of the passengers on board, because of their age, because of their health or whatever, may have been able to last a bit longer.”
Sotiris Voutas, a cousin of one of the passengers on the plane, told Athens Alpha channel and other networks that he received a text message from the cousin on his mobile phone minutes before the crash. He could not be reached after his initial comments.
“He told me the pilots were unconscious … he said: ‘Farewell, cousin, here we’re frozen’.”
The crash occurred at the height of Europe’s summer holiday season, when Mediterranean resorts such as Cyprus are packed with tourists. Holiday spots in the area are likely to be particularly crowded, as today is a national holiday in both Greece and Cyprus.
The unusual circumstances immediately raised speculation of terrorism. Greek state television NET reported that the plane’s two black boxes had been located.
A Cyprus government spokesman in Nicosia said there were no signs it was a terrorist attack.
The coldness in the cabin suggested “the crew may have been suffering from lack of oxygen”, said David Kaminski Morrow, deputy news editor of the British-based Air Transport Intelligence magazine.
Greek state television quoted Thrasou as saying the plane had problems with decompression in the past. But Dimitriou said at Athens airport that the plane had “no problems and was serviced just last week”.
Sudden loss of cabin pressure was blamed on a similar crash in the US in October 1999. A private Learjet 35 lost pressure and left professional golfer Payne Stewart and four others unconscious.
The twin-engine jet went down in a pasture after flying half-way across the country on autopilot.
A Helios official said the pilots may not have been flying the plane when it crashed. “It looks like the plane was on automatic pilot,” Helios spokesman Marios Konstantinidis said at Larnaca airport.
The victims’ relatives cried in anguish as they waited for news at Athens and Larnaca airports. After learning that mechanical failure was the suspected cause, relatives swarmed the counters at Larnaca, shouting “murderers” and, “you deserve lynching” at Helios managers.
In the hills above Grammatiko, more than 100 firefighters, aided by eight special planes and three helicopters dropping water, fought a huge brush fire caused by the crash. Parts of the wreckage were engulfed by the flames for most of the day.
The plane broke up into at least three pieces, including the tail, a piece of the cockpit and a part of the fuselage that witnesses said contained a large number of bodies.
Fire department rescue vehicles carried the victims’ remains in body bags up the steep slopes of the charred valley to a fleet of waiting ambulances.
“There is wreckage everywhere,” Grammatiko mayor George Papageorgiou said.
The head of the Greek airline safety committee, Akrivos Tsolakis, described it as the “worst accident we’ve ever had”.
Relatives from Cyprus were being taken to a hotel next to Athens airport where a reception centre was set up. They will be taken to a morgue in eastern Athens, but many bodies may have been charred beyond recognition.
Helios Airways, Cyprus’ first private airline, was founded in 1999. It operates a fleet of Boeing 737 jets to cities including London; Athens; Sofia, Bulgaria; Dublin; and Strasbourg, France.