48 children among 121 killed as plane hits mountain

 

An aircraft which crashed into a Greek mountain yesterday, killing its 121 passengers and crew, including dozens of children, may have been brought down by decompression or lack of oxygen in the cabin, which incapacitated the pilots.

As investigators examined the aircraft's two black box recorders, which were recovered at the scene, it emerged that one passenger had sent a mobile phone text message to his cousin minutes before the crash. "The pilot has turned blue and we're all freezing in here," read the text. "I bid you farewell, cousin."

The pilots of two F-16 fighter jets who were scrambled when the Cypriot airliner lost contact with air traffic controllers in Athens reported that the aircraft's pilot was absent from the cockpit and that the co- pilot was slumped over the controls.

Greek television reported that early in the flight, the crew had informed air traffic control that there were problems with the aircraft's air conditioning.

Flight ZU 522, of the budget airline Helios Airways, crashed about 25 miles north of Athens International Airport. It was en route from Larnaca in Cyprus to Prague, via Athens. There were 48 children on board, mostly Greek Cypriots, a Helios spokesman said.

Airport authorities in both Cyprus and Athens last night agreed that a loss of pressure inside the cabin was "almost certainly" to blame for the accident. "The pilot appears to have lost consciousness after the plane lost pressure," said a statement released at Larnaca airport.

Ioannis Pantazarantos, the head of air traffic control at Athens airport, said the Greek air force scrambled two F-16 jet fighters to trail the aircraft after it failed to respond to radio calls over the Aegean at about 10.30am, 1½ hours after take-off.

A government spokesman said the F-16 pilots reported that the captain was not in the cockpit, the co-pilot was slumped in his seat and oxygen masks could be seen hanging from the cabin ceiling.

When the two pilots flew by the aircraft a second time, he said, they saw two people apparently trying to take control of the Boeing-737, but it was unclear if they were members of the crew or passengers.

It crashed into a shrub-covered gorge at 12.20pm local time, narrowly missing homes in the coastal town of Grammatikos. The only piece of the aircraft that remained intact was the tail. Bodies, clothing and luggage were strewn over the hillside.

The fire chief said none of the 115 passengers and six crew survived. There were reports last night that the passengers included a group of Czech schoolchildren.

Akrivos Tsolakis, head of Greece's airline safety committee, described it as the "worst accident we've had". Greek television quoted Cyprus transport minister Haris Thrasou as saying the aircraft had had problems with decompression in the past.

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

  • There are no reports of any Irish citizens being among the passengers. Helios Airways, which operates flights between Dublin and Larnaca twice a week and a once-weekly service between Dublin and Pafos in Cyprus, use Boeing 737-800 aircraft on the route.