5 die on mercy flight

A helicopter ambulance crashed into a steep hilltop on the island of Anafi early yesterday, killing all five people aboard. The cause of the accident was not immediately known but witnesses said the Agusta A109 appeared to head in the wrong direction when it took off from the small Cycladic island for Rhodes with four crew members and a woman who had suffered a thrombosis. Less than two years ago, four crew members and a patient died when an identical helicopter crashed near Cape Sounion in a storm. The government ordered an inquiry. Officials expressed their condolences to the families of the dead, who were identified as pilot Vassilis Hamizidis, 49, copilot Stephan Meyer, a 34-year-old Swiss national, Dr Christos Antypas, 41, nurse Eleftherios Ferentinos, 31, and patient Anna Damigou, 62. Hamizidis was a highly experience pilot, with more than 6,000 hours of flight time, and a former air force helicopter instructor. «The crew members of the National First Aid Center (EKAB) give their own lives in the battle to help the people of the Aegean,» Aegean Minister Nikos Sifounakis said. «They proved this early today and in January 2001. On behalf of all the citizens of the archipelago, I thank them for their service, for their sacrifice.» The helicopter, which was one of five operated by EKAB, left its base on Rhodes for Anafi at 00.50 a. m. yesterday. It arrived at 1.45 a. m. and took off at 2.05 a. m. after Dr Antypas had examined the patient and prepared her for transport. At 3.15 a. m., the Helitalia company which has operational responsibility for the EKAB aircraft, called the radar stations in Athens, Santorini, Kos, Rhodes and the air force to help look for the helicopter, as it did not appear on any radar. At 4.15 a. m., EKAB notified the Merchant Marine Ministry’s Search and Rescue Center that the helicopter was missing. At 4.50 a. m. the Search and Rescue Center notified the navy. Local shipping, a C-130 military transport plane, two air force helicopters and a navy helicopter, two navy gunboats, three patrol boats and a coast guard search and rescue vessel began to comb the sea between Anafi and Rhodes. At 7.25 a. m. a shepherd found the wreckage of the helicopter and the bodies just below the crest of a hill in Anafi’s center. «As the helicopter was leaving, it seemed odd to us that they were not following the usual course but were heading north, toward the mountain,» Anafi’s mayor, Iakovos Roussos, told Kathimerini. «A few minutes later we lost sight of them and reckoned they had left safely. There was no explosion, we did not notice anything. In fact, there wasn’t even much wind, so we were not worried.»   New Democracy’s health spokesman, Nikitas Kaklamanis, asked Health Minister Costas Stefanis whether Civil Aviation Service proposals following the first EKAB helicopter crash had been adopted.