Cyprus reacts with shock and anger in wake of Helios crash

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The Independent Online

Many Cypriots are still in shock as they begin three official days of mourning in the wake of the Helios air crash. Yet, as the bodies of the 121 victims are gathered from a mountainside north-east of Athens, investigators are struggling to explain what caused the accident.

Most of the bodies were frozen solid, according to Greek defence ministry sources, suggesting that the plane was already a flying tomb after decompressing at 35,000 feet. But the chief coroner said that at least six of the passengers were alive when the plane crashed into the mountain.

Some aviation specialists support the theory that the pilots' oxygen tanks may have failed after the cabin decompressed. Robbed of oxygen at such high altitude, they maintain, the pilots would have lost consciousness within seconds, while the passengers trapped at 35,000 feet would have frozen to death.

As the horror of the final moments of flight ZU522 sank in, the island of one million was facing up to the scale of its loss. Nowhere was it more keenly felt than in the coastal town of Paralimni.

Three local families, 16 people in all, lost their lives when the Boeing 737 crashed on Sunday morning. They were travelling to Athens en route to a holiday at Porto Heli in the Peloponnese.

Yesterday, locals gathered at the house of one of the bereaved, unsure who or how to comfort.

"You don't know what to do," Stavros Kyriacou, a taxi driver said. "If someone loses a grandparent or a mother or a father, you go round to their house and talk about the person who's gone and you have a wake. But what are we supposed to do when we've lost whole families?"

Furious questions were being asked over whether companies had cut fares by cutting corners on safety.

Helios, established as Cyprus's first independent airline in 1999, is now owned by the British tour operator Libra Holidays Group.

Since the crash, former Helios passengers have been ringing radio and television stations to tell of their own close shaves in the airline's planes, including an emergency landing when three passengers were sent to hospital.

Specific problems with the plane that crashed have emerged. On 18 December 2004, the Cyprus daily Phileleftheros reported how, on a flight of the same Boeing 737 from Warsaw to Larnaca, the electronic systems indicated decompression in the cabin and the oxygen masks were released. The captain took emergency precautions, dropping the plane from 35,000 feet to 11,000 feet, and then made an emergency landing at Paphos.

Four other incidents involving the same plane were reported during the past four months. The last such complaint occurred during the flight before the one that ended in tragedy.

More details emerged from the two F-16 Greek air force jets scrambled to investigate the Helios flight. They reported that the co-pilot was slumped in the cockpit and the pilot was not visible.

Athens officials said the F-16 pilots reported that, with the pilots out of action, there may have been a late effort by others onboard to bring it under control.

"The F-16s saw two individuals in the cockpit seemingly trying to regain control of the airplane," said a Greek government spokesman. "The F-16s also saw oxygen masks down."

Helios flights have been grounded and the company's headquarters were raided to collect evidence that might be useful in a possible criminal investigation.

But that was not enough to satisfy those facing the macabre trip to Athens to identify the bodies of their loved ones. Eleni Michozalis, whose goddaughter Antonia died in the crash with her husband and their children, aged 12, 10 and 6, said: "Where are the EU's regulatory powers?"

"They make us wash our hands before we go into the slaughter house to kill the chickens. They minutely regulate the way we drive on the roads ... But why did they allow this plane to fly? The pilots couldn't do anything. The airline killed everyone."

Police have arrested a man who claimed to have received a text message from a passenger. Nektarios-Sotirios Voutas, 32, called Greek television stations saying his cousin, who he identified as Nikos Petridis, had sent him a message minutes before the crash saying: "Farewell, cousin, here we're frozen." But police said they had determined he was lying, and there was no Petridis on the official list of victims.