Frozen at 35,000 feet: Cypriot airline crash kills 121

The remains of 121 people, including 48 schoolchildren, were scattered across a mountainside north-east of Athens after a Cypriot Boeing 737 owned by a British company suddenly lost air pressure or oxygen supplies and crashed into a hillside.

Amid the debris only the tail section of the Helios Airways flight was intact following the crash just after noon, local time. Bodies and luggage were scattered around the wreckage, triggering brush fires. "It wasn't a bang but a loud noise like thunder," said Ioannis Mexi, 72, in of Grammatikos, 3.7 miles from where the plane came down. "I drove to see what happened and I saw the tailplane and wreckage."

Two Greek air force F-16 jets were scrambled to intercept the airliner when the pilot failed to contact Athens air traffic control as the plane entered Greek airspace. The F-16 pilots reported seeing the co-pilot slumped over his controls and no trace of the pilot. They also saw two passengers struggling with the controls, and that the oxygen masks had dropped. A passenger in the plane sent a text message to his cousin in Cyprus via his mobile phone minutes before the crash. "The pilot has turned blue. Cousin farewell, we're freezing."

Greek authorities dispatched dozens of ambulances to the area but they found no trace of any survivors. Wreckage and fragments of bodies were scattered across a wide area. Firefighting planes drawing water from the sea at the ancient town of Marathon a few kilometres away dumped many loads on the flames to bring them under control.

The plane broke up into at least three pieces, including the tail, a bit of the cockpit and a piece of the fuselage section that eyewitnesses said contained a large group of bodies.

Father Kirilos, the abbot of a monastery 200 metres from the crash site, said he saw the plane fall from the sky. "As it came down, first the tail broke off, then the plane continued to plough down the hillside breaking up as it went," he said.

"I rushed down to see if there were survivors but there were none. I saw the dead passengers, some of them still strapped into their seats, others with their bodies broken by the impact of the crash. Then fire swept through the wreckage and the bodies were burnt in it."

Within an hour, the sleepy village of Grammatikos was clogged with fire engines, police and TV lorries. A fireman who had just returned from the crash site, Panayiotis Dimitrakopoulos, said: "most of the wreckage was in a steep gorge and it was very hard to get to. Only the plane's tail, which was more or less intact, was on level ground."

Another witness saw "bodies scattered around, all of them wearing [oxygen] masks."

The Cypriot Transport Minister, Haris Thrasou, told reporters in Larnaca: "The state of the bodies is such that it is difficult to recognise at first sight ... This is why genetic material will be used [for identification]."

He added that there was no indication of an act of terrorism.

The disaster was the worst in Greek or Cypriot aviation history. But it was not the first incident to involve Helios. Established in 1999, it was Cyprus's first private airline. Helios, which flies to Dublin, Sofia, Warsaw and Prague as well as several British airports, was purchased by Libra Holiday Group, one of Britain's main tour operators in November 2004. The following month one of Helios's planes lost cabin pressure and was forced to make an emergency landing in Larnaca.

The plane that left Larnaca at 10am local time yesterday was en route to Prague with a stopover in Athens. The first indication of trouble was when the pilot failed to make contact with air traffic control in Athens. Greek Defence Ministry officials said 90 minutes elapsed between the alert being raised at 10.30 am and the plane crashing at 12.03 pm.

A source said the F16 pilots were being flown to Defence Ministry headquarters for debriefing. "Their testimony is crucial for the continuation of the investigation. They are the ones with the last visuals of the plane."

Kieran Daly, editor of Air Transport Intelligence, said the cause of the crash was a "puzzle".

"There are very good procedures in place for dealing with a lack of oxygen. There are so many warning systems, the crew should have been aware there was a problem," he told Reuters.

"The passenger commenting that it was cold suggests there was no air circulating in the cabin at all, or in the cockpit."

A spokesman for the European Aviation Safety Agency, Daniel Holtgen, based in Cologne, Germany, said: "It is highly unlikely that the loss of cabin pressure alone would cause such an incident. There would have to be other contributing factors."

There were scenes of desperation at Larnaca airport after news of the crash. Family members had to wait up to six hours. "Tell us if our relatives are dead," some begged Helios officials.

Mothers of some of the dead children screamed and clutched each other in despair. Some relatives collapsed and were taken away in ambulances when the news came through. Unconfirmed reports of previous problems with the airline's fleet prompted an angry response from other grievers with some chanting "Helios are murderers".

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