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".

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy as ECB finally wield the axe
Life and Style
food + drink
Voices
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959
voicesWard committed no crime, and the truth is still being covered up, writes Geoffrey Robertson QC
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas