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Clues Sought to Cause of Puzzling Air Crash in Greece
2005-08-16 10:55:38

The New York Times

By ANTHEE CARASSAVA and IAN FISHER

ATHENS, Aug. 16 - Autopsies on the bodies of 20 people who died in the plane disaster in Greece on Sunday, including one flight attendant, show they were alive when the plane went down, an Athens coroner said today.

The 20 victims' hearts and lungs were functioning when the plane crashed, said Nikos Kalogrias, one of a team of seven coroners.

"The attendant was alive and died of injuries" sustained in the crash, he said, according to The Associated Press.

Officials also said today that they had found only the exterior container of the cockpit voice recorder, hampering investigative efforts into the cause of the crash. The device's internal components were ejected when the plane crashed into a mountainous region north of Athens on Sunday, said Akrivos Tsolakis, the head of the Greek airline safety committee, The A.P. reported.

"The only fortunate event in the investigation is that we have the flight data recorder," Mr. Tsolakis said, adding that the box would be flown to Paris on Wednesday for decoding.

He said a group of investigators would search for the rest of the voice recorder, adding that American experts, including a representative of the Boeing 737's manufacturer, were providing assistance.

The voice recorder picks up any conversation inside the cockpit but records only the last 30 minutes of sound. Because the airplane appeared to have been flying disabled for several hours, it was not clear how useful any recovered conversations would be.

Mr. Tsolakis said the bodies of the plane's Cypriot co-pilot and one of the flight attendants were found next to the wreckage of the cockpit.

Because there was no radio contact from the plane flying from Cyprus to Athens for an hour and a half, Greek officials said Monday that whatever had happened did not force down the Boeing 737 immediately, but killed or disabled at least one of the pilots, then sent the plane on a slow decline from 32,000 feet that ended in a crash into mountains just north of the Greek capital.

There were no survivors among the 121 passengers and crew of the Helios Airways jet.

Investigators on Monday combed the wreckage, finding the plane's badly damaged second black box. Autopsies began on the victims to seek clues on the two main theories about the crash: that the plane suffered a loss of pressure or that toxic fumes, perhaps from a faulty air-conditioner, overwhelmed those aboard.

By Monday evening, the Greek chief coroner, Philippos Koutsaftis, said only that he had performed autopsies on six bodies and that they were alive at the moment of impact.

"That does not mean that they were conscious, but they had breath and circulation," he said.

Earlier, Greek officials said they believed that most of the passengers were probably dead before the crash. After reports on Sunday that 48 of the victims were children, officials also said Monday that the number was closer to 15.

Attention began focusing Monday on Helios Airways, a budget airline founded in 1999 as Cyprus's first private airline. Late Monday, the Cyprus police raided the airline's offices, confiscating maintenance records for the crashed plane.

Earlier in the day, a Helios crew refused to work a scheduled flight from Cyprus to Sofia, the Bulgarian capital. Company officials would not say why, but local news reports in Cyprus cited technical problems with the aircraft.

But as airline officials announced a roughly $25,000 initial compensation payment to relatives of each of the dead, they maintained that the plane - and the airline - were safe.

"Prior to its departure, the aircraft was duly inspected in line with standard procedures," Agence France-Presse quoted the airline's managing director, Dimitris Pantazis, as saying.

The mother of the co-pilot, Pambos Charalambous, said in an interview with Antenna TV in Cyprus that he had told her the plane had problems.

"He told me the plane had a problem, and I urged him not to fly," said his mother, Artemis Charalambous. "He told the company about it getting cold, and they told him it would be fixed."

The story of the crash took another twist on Monday as a man who said he had received a cellphone text message from a cousin aboard confessed that his claim was a hoax. He was arrested. The message reportedly said: "The pilots have turned blue. Farewell cousin, we're frozen."

Relatives arrived here from Cyprus on Monday to identify their loved ones at a state morgue.

"My daughter-in-law and three grandchildren are gone," a Cypriot man cried. "I want these people to be punished to the end for allowing this plane with problems to operate."

Though firm facts were few, officials released more details about the course of the plane, from the time it took off from Larnaca airport in Cyprus at 9 a.m., bound for Prague with a stop in Athens, until it crashed at 12:03 p.m., after being trailed for 43 minutes by two Greek fighters. On Sunday, the fighter pilots reported seeing the co-pilot slumped over the controls, oxygen masks dangling in the cabin, and no sign of the pilot.

On Monday, a senior Greek Air Force official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said the Helios pilots had reported problems with the air-conditioning system while the plane was at 16,000 feet and said they would stay at that altitude.

At 10:26 a.m., the pilots radioed again, saying that the problem had been fixed and that they would climb to 32,000 feet. It was the last communication with the ground.

The spokesman said that over the island of Karystos, in the southeastern Aegean Sea, the plane began making right-wing turns, a distress signal. After about three turns, he said, the plane began its puzzling descent, dropping steadily until it hit the mountain. "There was no sudden drop in altitude or wild maneuver at any point of the flight," he said.

A possible explanation came from the discovery in the wreckage of the body of a flight attendant, found along with the co-pilot in the cockpit.

Aviation experts remained at a loss to explain the crash. "It's the first I've heard that a plane crashed because of a decompression or oxygen system problem," said Markos Kandyllakis, an airplane mechanic and aviation expert. "There must have been a combination of factors that led to this catastrophe."

Experts cautioned, though, that the investigation was in its first stages.

"You tend to get very confused signals to start off with," said Daniel Holtgen, a spokesman for the European Aviation Safety Agency. "However, they have both recorders, so there will be an answer."

"They will get to the bottom of this," he said.

Anthee Carassava reported from Athens for this article, and Ian Fisher from Rome. Matthew L. Wald contributed reporting from Washington.

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