Grieving want answers

LARNACA – Grief-stricken Cyprus mourned the victims of its deadliest air disaster after 121 people, most of them Cypriot, were killed in a plane crash in Greece amid angry questions over the doomed aircraft’s safety. The somber roll call included a four-year-old girl and 14 other children aged 10 or less. «It’s a tragedy, but is it also a crime?» questioned the Alithia newspaper after whole families were wiped out when the Helios Airways Boeing 737 plunged into a wooded hillside near Athens in mysterious circumstances on Sunday. «Black Sun Covers Cyprus… 121 dead, WHY?» demanded Tharros newspaper in a play on the word «helios,» which means sun in Greek. The low-cost airline, which angered grieving relatives after a long delay in releasing a passenger list, yesterday announced that its remaining fleet of three planes had been grounded. It was the most serious air disaster involving a Cypriot airline since independence in 1960. A total of 66 people died in 1967 when a London-Nicosia flight via Athens crashed into the Aegean. Large congregations gathered in churches on the devoutly religious Greek Orthodox southern part of Cyprus, where candles were lit for the victims. «I still can’t believe what happened,» said Dinos Kourousiaklis, a relative of a crash victim. In a rare contact between the two rival communities on the divided island, the leader of the breakaway Turkish-Cypriot statelet, Mehmet Ali Talat, called Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos to extend his condolences. Cyprus has declared three days of official mourning with flags flying at half mast on government buildings. Cypriot Health Minister Andreas Gabrielides joined a memorial service at Athens’s Metropolitan Cathedral. A special flight also left Cyprus for Greece, carrying about 100 relatives who want to identify the bodies of those who perished on the doomed Helios flight 522. Many will have to give DNA samples as most bodies were burned beyond recognition in the fire that broke out after the Boeing 737 crashed. Most of the front pages of Cyprus’s newspapers were black in memory of the victims and press reports raised questions about the safety of the plane, recounting previous instances of problems. The tragedy came at the height of the tourist season, with August 15 a major national holiday. But Cypriots were not in a holiday mood, with restaurants and bars reporting a sharp downturn in business. Cypriot media had earlier said that Helios pilots and flight attendants refused to board a flight from Larnaca to Sofia, describing the action as a «mini mutiny,» although it was unclear if the refusal was over safety concerns. «In the past two years alone, there were several incidents involving troubled flights and urgent landings,» said the English-language Cyprus Mail. Other reports suggested the plane had been «problematic» but Helios issued a statement saying it was «fully serviceable and airworthy before departure.» Passenger list released According to a passenger list released by Cypriot police yesterday, 99 of the passengers were Cypriots and 16 were residents of Greece, including Greek nationals. Twenty-two of the passengers were aged under 18. Five of the six crew members were Cypriots, except for the pilot, who was German. At least 10 entire families were on board (parents with their children). Next of kin were flown from Cyprus yesterday in order to identify the victims. Most of the bodies are at a morgue in Goudi in central Athens. But at least six of the bodies damaged beyond recognition were taken to another site at Schisto, near Piraeus, pending DNA matching to establish identity, according to forensic officials. Forensic tests were also expected to establish if the cause of death was inhalation of toxic gases. To find out more about the passenger list, call (0035) 700.037.37 and (0035) 224.461.46. Flight path 9 a.m.: Helios Airways flight ZU522 leaves Larnaca bound for Prague via Athens. 9.37: The aircraft enters the Athens FIR (Flight Information Region) and is automatically identified by Greek Civil Aviation Service (YPA) radar. 10.07: Athens’s air traffic control tower is unable to contact the aircraft to begin descent. 10.20: Athens contacts Larnaca where traffic control officials report an earlier message from the aircraft of a problem with the air-conditioning system. 10.25: YPA informs the National Center for Search and Rescue Coordination, and air traffic control notifies the National Operations Center that the aircraft had begun to fly in circles over the islands of Kea and Kythnos. 10.30: Air force planes are put on a two-minute standby. The Defense Ministry issues a «renegade alert» in accordance with international regulations for aircraft that fail to respond to air traffic control. 10.55: Two F-16 fighter aircraft scramble to intercept the Helios aircraft. 11.20: They establish visual contact with the aircraft and observe the co-pilot slumped over controls and the pilot not in the cockpit. The aircraft’s cabin’s oxygen masks appear to have been activated. The fighter pilots see two unidentified persons apparently trying to regain control of the plane. 12.05 p.m.: The aircraft crashes near Grammatiko, 40 km north of Athens.