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Greece and Cyprus Mourn Air Crash Victims

A Cypriot-based Helios Airways passenger jet, Helios Flight 522, crashed into a mountainside near Marathon, and about 40 kilometers north of Athens, on Sunday, August 14. All 121 people aboard, including the six crewmembers, were killed. Debris from the crash was spread at least 500 meters.

The Greek government has said the cause of the crash was likely technical failure and not terrorism. So far, however, reasons behind the crash are unknown but most in the airline industry call it a mysterious crash.

The Helios Airways flight left Larnaca, Cyprus, on the morning of August 14 for Prague, Czech Republic, with a stopover in Athens. The plane was filled with Cypriot passengers off to enjoy a vacation, and they included 59 adults and eight children who were disembarking at Athens, along with 46 adults and two children who were headed to Prague.

Shortly after leaving Larnaca, however, the two Helios pilots reported an air conditioning problem. But it seems the pilots, or the company’s officials, decided that problem was not sufficiently serious to warrant a return to Larnaca and continued the journey.

When the jet entered Greek air space high above the Aegean Sea at about 10:30 that same morning, air traffic controllers began trying to contact the pilots, but their efforts were futile.

After some time, the Helios flight was declared “renegade” as it failed to respond to the continuous radio calls. (Renegade status means that the plane could be ordered shot it down if it was deemed a threat to populated areas.) Government ordered two Greek air force F-16 jets to scramble and escort the plane.

When the passenger jet was spotted, it was apparently on autopilot at 34,000 feet. The pilots of the F-16s reported seeing one of the pilots slumped over the plane’s controls, but did not see the other pilot. The fighter pilots also said they could see through the cabin windows that the oxygen masks had dropped from the ceiling of the plane.

A little later they saw two people who they thought were crewmembers trying to prevent the plane from crashing, according to a government spokesman. (The body of a female flight attendant was found in the wreckage of the cockpit, the spokesman said.)

Greek state-run and private media, quoting anonymous Defense Ministry officials, have said the F-16 pilots also saw someone in the cockpit -probably a man- take control of the plane as it flew in a gradually descending holding pattern, apparently on autopilot, at about 11,000 meters near Athens airport.

That person then banked the plane away from Athens, lowering it first to 600 meters and then climbing back up to 2,100 meters before the plane apparently ran out of fuel and crashed.

According to the media accounts, the person flying the Helios plane made an effort to land in the mountainous terrain. By that time, the plane had been flying for about an hour and a half beyond its scheduled arrival time — and twice as long as a normal flight from Cyprus to Athens.

Numerous reports say the person at the controls was likely the 25-year-old flight attendant on board, whose relatives have said he had a pilot’s license. Chief investigator Akrivos Tsolakis has confirmed someone apart from the pilot and co-pilot on board was qualified to fly an aircraft, but would not elaborate.

Three days after the crash, autopsy results on 26 bodies identified have shown passengers and at least two crew members -including the co-pilot- were alive, but not necessarily conscious, when the plane went down.

Medical examiners, after initial research, believe that most if not all passengers died when the plane crashed into the mountain.

Though the flight data and voice recorders could provide some clues as to why the plane crashed, investigators said the voice recorder was badly damaged. It remained unclear how much sound would be audible. Both so-called “black boxes” — in this case, actually orange boxes — were taken away by investigators.

The plane’s flight data recorder and the remains of the badly damaged voice recorder will be examined in Paris.

Investigators are also looking into claims the plane had technical problems in the past.

Days after the crash, Cypriot prosecutors said they felt insufficient information had been surrendered by the airline and ordered police to take further documents. Among the things police were searching for were maintenance records about the plane involved in the crash.

“The plane observed all the necessary maintenance and checks in line with international requirements, those of the manufacturer, and Cypriot civil aviation requirements,” said Andreas Drakos, president of the Cypriot airline Helios Airways, in a news conference before the airline’s offices were raided. Helios is a subsidiary of Libra Holidays Group, with offices in Greece and Cyprus, which specializes in travel packages to Greece and Cyprus.

Relatives of the victims visited the crash site two days later to attend an outdoor memorial service, held beside the tail of the plane — one of the few remaining pieces of the aircraft.

Many bodies of the 121 people aboard were burned in a brush fire sparked by the crash and will be identified in Athens by DNA comparison with close family members. Deputy Interior Minster Marko Yannakis said Monday 119 bodies were recovered, and searchers were looking for remains of two others.

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