Rumors over crash rife in Cyprus

LARNACA (AFP) – With few answers available as to why a Cypriot plane plunged into a hillside outside Athens killing all 121 on board, conspiracy theories were rife within the close-knit island community yesterday. Some Cypriots believe the out-of-control Helios Airways passenger jet – flying from Larnaca to Prague via Athens – could have been shot down by Greek F-16 fighter jets to prevent it crashing in a populated area. This has been denied by the Greek government but it is just one rumor among many within this community of 750,000, where everyone knows someone affected by the disaster. «I believe the truth will never come out and if the plane was shot down the Greeks would never admit it,» Nasso Christou, 47, told AFP. Industry experts say the circumstances surrounding Sunday’s Boeing 737 crash are unprecedented, amid conflicting reports that a loss of cabin pressure froze passengers solid while others talk of overheating. For an unknown reason the plane’s communication system failed to respond, the air-conditioning system was reportedly faulty and both pilots were in some way incapacitated, leaving the fateful flight on auto-pilot. It is thought that Helios steward Andreas Prodromou, a trained pilot, and his girlfriend and colleague Haris Charalambous tried to save the plane but ran out of fuel before they could try to land the aircraft away from the Greek capital. Simerini newspaper said that police are looking at different scenarios, one of which is that a fight took place between German captain Hans Juergen Merten, 58, and Cypriot co-pilot Pambos (Charalambos) Charalambous after a problem was detected. The German pilot – contracted to work for Helios six months ago – is either still missing or his body remains unidentified. Phileleftheros said that soon after takeoff from Larnaca the pilot contacted the company as the cooling system for the cockpit’s electronics was overheating. «When the on-call engineer asked to talk to the co-pilot communications broke up and were then lost completely,» it said. Cyprus air traffic control realized there may be a problem when a Helios engineer told them to try and contact the plane on the company’s behalf, said Phileleftheros. Politis, meanwhile, said that police investigators will be looking at the plane’s oxygen supplies amid suspicions some bottles were either empty or not completely full. A grief-stricken Cyprus started on Wednesday to bury the first of its victims, with autopsies are still under way in Greece, heralding more funerals in days to come. The vast majority of the 121 people on the doomed flight were Cypriots, making it the worst air disaster to befall the island. The first funeral service, in the capital Nicosia, was for the 40-year-old co-pilot, who leaves behind a wife and four children who say he constantly complained about technical problems on the crashed aircraft. «My father kept a diary about the problems of the airline and if that gets out the company will close,» his son Yiannis Charalambous told local Mega TV. «We don’t want revenge, we want the truth to come out,» said Yiannis, who himself is studying to be a pilot. Helios offices in Larnaca and Nicosia were raided on Monday and documents taken, with police fielding statements from former Helios pilots, mechanics and travelers. Police have also complained about people voicing grievances to the media rather than to them. Meanwhile, President Tassos Papadopoulos has slammed Cypriot media for jumping to conclusions without «scientific proof» while the Cyprus Union of Journalists criticized «unacceptable instances of lack of respect for relatives’ pain.» Helios executive chairman Andreas Drakou has strongly rejected any suggestions the private low-cost airline had skimped on safety. Meanwhile, a Helios cabin crew member said she was «scared» about returning to work. «I’m thinking about quitting my job… I just don’t feel safe anymore. There were problems with that plane,» she was quoted as saying.