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".

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
video
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Extras
indybest
News
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
education
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
sport
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sport
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Sport
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform