Mercy doctors refuse to fly after crash

A state body to manage mercy flight missions has become more urgent than ever in view of the third fatal helicopter crash in two years, which has led to doctors and paramedics refusing to fly on rescue helicopters as long as these are operated by Helitalia. National First Aid Center (EKAB) workers also refuted claims by the Helitalia company that the Agusta A109E helicopter, which crashed off the island of Icaria on Tuesday, had no history of problems, saying that it had developed a mechanical fault in one of its engines. On Wednesday at a general meeting, the union of EKAB workers decided not to participate in airlift missions as long as they are operated by Helitalia, saying that the cause of so many casualties was the «transformation of services from a social service to a commercial good subject to unbridled profiteering by airlift administrators.» Rescue workers believe that the helicopter that plunged into the sea off Icaria had had problems from the start. Apart from an oil problem it developed on February 3, it also suffered a malfunction in its left engine, which was replaced, something they allege Helitalia covered up. For this reason, they are considering the possibility of laying the matter before a prosecutor. Yesterday, airlift workers went on a 24-hour strike, demanding the immediate cancellation of the contract with the company, the assignment of mercy missions to a state body (in this case, the Ministry of Defense) and a framework of regulations for when flights should or should not take place. In addition, they are asking for two airplanes and five more helicopters, a demand EKAB had conveyed in a memorandum to Olympics organizers Athens 2004, and accuse the Ministry of Health of having shelved the whole issue. On SKAI radio yesterday, union member Dimitris Voulis declared that first-aid workers «would fight against the Health Ministry’s attempt to assign, in view of the Olympic Games, rescue flights to private firms.» Civil Servants Union (ADEDY) President Spyros Papaspyrou yesterday also demanded the heads of those responsible for managing and supervising airlifts in both the ministry and EKAB, especially those serving when the accidents took place. Only during wartime would three of five EKAB helicopters have fallen, said the head of the Panhellenic Federation of Workers (POE) state hospital staff section, Stavros Koutsiobelis, stressing the need for rescue workers to use Greek air force planes, given their expertise and safety record. Federation of Hospital Doctors of Greece (OENGE) President Vassilis Laopodis said that the way in which EKAB is structured, in combination with the shortcomings of health facilities on the islands, meant that accidents were inevitable. «The best monument to our fallen colleagues is a scheme that would tackle health service needs on the Greek islands.» Hospital doctors throughout Greece went on a 24-hour strike yesterday (apart from in Athens and Piraeus, where work stoppages took place from 10 a.m. till 2 p.m.). Among their demands are pay rises and an increase in healthcare spending.