EKAB flights suspended after crash

A sea and air search yesterday failed to find an ambulance helicopter and its four-man crew which crashed off the eastern Aegean island of Icaria early on Tuesday. Supreme Court prosecutor Evangelos Kroustallakis ordered an investigation by the court’s deputy prosecutor into the crash. He asked for the probe to include evidence from the investigations into two previous medical airlift crashes over the past two years that caused the deaths of 10 other people. Employees of the National First Aid Center (EKAB) declared a 24-hour strike for today and said they would not fly with the service’s remaining three Agusta A109E helicopters as long as they were operated by Helitalia. On Tuesday, the government suspended night flights by EKAB, leaving medical airlifts to the army and navy. With Helitalia’s contract due to end in October, this meant the military would have to carry out all mercy flights. EKAB carried out up to 2,500 such flights annually, forming a lifeline for the islands. High winds and heavy seas were hampering the search by a naval frigate, an air force helicopter, two coast guard vessels and four fishing boats. Debris has been found 4 miles off Icaria but the fuselage of the helicopter and its occupants were still missing. A report yesterday that the body of the helicopter had been found by naval sonar was mistaken. An inquiry has been ordered into the loss of the helicopter as it was approaching Icaria from Mytilene, on Lesvos, to pick up a 70-year-old woman and take her to Mytilene for emergency treatment. The pilot had exchanged messages with Icaria’s control tower, saying he had visual contact with it. The helicopter did not send out any emergency signal, crashing into the sea in just 20 seconds, according to data that emerged yesterday. Experts surmised that this entailed a sudden and serious malfunction. EKAB employees revealed that the helicopter, which had only flown 647 hours, had had its left engine changed three months ago. Helitalia had said on Tuesday that the aircraft had no history of problems. Missing are pilot Efstratios Fotiadis, co-pilot Ilias Lendis, Dr Maged Safadi, and paramedic Ioannis Kouroulis.