A year later, ‘bizarre’ air crash still unsolved

NICOSIA (AFP) – One year after a Cypriot passenger jet slammed into a hillside outside Athens, killing all 121 people on board, grieving relatives remain in the dark about the cause of the unusual crash. Described as one of the world’s most «bizarre» airline disasters, the Helios airways Boeing 737 left the Cypriot port of Larnaca on August 14, 2005 and flew on autopilot for more than two hours before it mysteriously crashed. The Cypriot co-pilot was witnessed slumped over the controls while the German pilot was not at his seat, both somehow incapacitated soon after the aircraft took off from Larnaca heading for Prague via Athens. While early probes indicated a problem with air pressure, a Greek investigation into the accident has yet to be published and a Cypriot police probe has so far proved inconclusive, while an on-island public inquiry has been adjourned until the Greek findings are known. «We are following the issue very closely and we are disappointed that one year since the crash nothing has happened,» Nicolas Yiasoumis, a spokesman for the Cypriot relatives, told AFP. «We hope that Greek justice and Cyprus justice will take its course. We believe there is enough evidence to put some people in jail for what happened but this will take time,» he added. Cyprus and Greece remembered the dead on Monday, the one-year anniversary of the crash. Some 190 relatives traveled from Cyprus to the crash site at Grammatiko, 40 kilometers (25 miles) outside Athens, to attend a memorial service and hold prayers. The vast majority of those killed were Cypriot, most of them families with children. The youngest victim was 4 years old. Dozens more victims were Greek nationals. For Cyprus, a close-knit Mediterranean island with a population of under a million, its worst-ever peace time disaster still remains fresh in the collective memory. «I’m still very hurt and very angry over the loss of my daughter because nothing has been done about those people responsible,» said Lonias Efthyvoulou, whose daughter Louisa was chief crew member on the ill-fated flight. He is also upset that nobody has made themselves accountable for what he feels was a «negligent» lack of air safety measures, either by Cypriot civil aviation or the company itself. «There were complaints about air safety but nothing was done by those in responsible positions. Did people have to die to take action? Nothing can justify the loss of our relatives,» he said. Greek crash investigation chief Akrivos Tsolakis says his team is working «day and night» to produce a thorough report «without gray areas» on the Helios crash by early September. Tsolakis says he is confident that his groundbreaking report will «change many things in the way flights are operated at the global level.» The international airline industry is eager to know the findings of the Greek probe as the Helios disaster is among the most puzzling in aviation industry. According to Tsolakis a series of factors had contributed to the crash, caused by the failure of the pressurization system. Reportedly, a key factor was a pressure valve being left in the wrong position, causing the cabin to quickly lose oxygen as it gained altitude. Apparently, a ground check by engineers and a pilots’ pre-flight check failed to notice the switch was left in manual mode instead of automatic, resulting in the system not engaging during the flight to Athens. Adding to the mystery surrounding the crash, flight attendant Andreas Prodromou had, apparently, managed to stay conscious while the cabin lost oxygen but only entered the cockpit 10 minutes before the plane crashed due to a lack of fuel. Although he grappled at the controls, his limited pilot training was not enough to save the aircraft and those on board. In a tragic twist, Prodromou was on the doomed plane as a last-minute replacement and only agreed because his girlfriend Haris Charalambous was also working on the flight. «This was one of the most bizarre accidents,» Cyprus air accidents commission chief Costas Orphanos told AFP. «This is a very special case and something which has never happened in aviation history,» he added. He said a lot has been done to improve flight safety in Cyprus and the final report will see others take corrective measures, «not just civil aviation, but the company (Helios is now renamed Ajet) and Boeing.» «I think the report will be published at the end of this month or beginning of September so people can see what happened, it will be made very clear.»

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