Chains of responsibility

In the runup to the Olympics, when the Americans effectively took over security planning but had to work with Greek means and sensitivities, they kept stressing the need for method. It is said that US officials kept asking: «If a rogue plane is headed for the crowded Olympic Stadium and is suspected of carrying biological or chemical weapons, who gives the order to shoot it down and how quickly will the decision be taken?» The scenario was extreme, but it set the stage for the serious thinking that had to be done to minimize the effect of any possible terrorist attack. In the end, those who needed to know knew who would give the order to shoot down the plane and how quickly this decision would be taken. The whole international security community clicked together to provide security – from intelligence sources in remote corners of the world to the fleet of NATO early warning planes and Greek jetfighters providing cover over Greece 24 hours a day. Thankfully, none of this was needed. The terrorists never got around to Athens. We will probably never know if they were deterred by the massive security effort or whether no one had ever intended to hit the Olympics, or whether the truth lies somewhere in between. On August 29, the Olympics ended and the world moved on. We were left to bask in the glow of a job well done and – while waiting for the pleasure of hosting the Paralympics – to evaluate what we had gained in terms of know-how. The future would be built on this «Great Greek Summer,» as Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis billed it in his keynote address on the economy in Thessaloniki last Friday night. But a day later it was clear that the Great Greek Summer needed some work. In an incident that would be inconceivable anywhere in the modern world, let alone in a country that had just pulled off with great success the biggest peacetime operation on the planet, an army helicopter crashed off the Halkidiki peninsula at about 11 a.m. on Saturday and no one noticed. It was carrying no less a passenger than Patriarch Petros of Alexandria and All Africa. All 17 people aboard, including five crewmen, were lost. Helicopters fall, even the massive Chinook army transports. This is sad but unremarkable. What is astonishing in this case is that, at midday, on a clear day, no one missed the helicopter and its occupants for over an hour. Seventeen people and a major military asset were lost and no one noticed. Greece was ready and able to shoot down an intruding plane within minutes but was not quite as ready to make sure that a helicopter had reached its destination. From the injuries evident on the bodies that were recovered and the lack of any emergency signal from the helicopter, it is obvious that something sudden and completely catastrophic occurred. No one survived the impact, which shattered the fuselage before the remains of the Chinook sank to the seabed 866 meters below the surface, 8 miles southwest of Mount Athos. So it is not a question of how many lives were lost because the search and rescue operation was delayed. It is more a question of how crippled the system of monitoring such flights turned out to be. And we also found ourselves with a government that appeared singularly incapable of formulating a response to the crisis that arose when the truth of the delay in realizing that the helicopter was missing began to emerge. By Friday afternoon, nearly a week after the crash, the public was still not clear about what had happened. And we are not talking about the cause of the crash, which will be the subject of an investigation. The questions concern how the helicopter was lost by air traffic controllers, when officials realized it was missing, what they did, and when government officials (including the prime minister and defense minister) were informed. Defense Minister Spilios Spiliotopoulos, for example, says he was told of the crash at 2.18 p.m. on Saturday. The aircraft is believed to have crashed nearly three and a half hours earlier, at 10.56 a.m. It was scheduled to arrive at Karyes on the Mount Athos peninsula at 11.08 a.m. According to various reports that have emerged in the past week, at 11.25 a.m. the air force radar operator at Hortiatis near Thessaloniki assured the city’s air traffic control tower that the Chinook had landed at Karyes. When Athens’ traffic control asked Thessaloniki at 11.25 what had happened to the flight, Thessaloniki assured it that it had landed, according to the Eleftheros Typos newspaper yesterday. At 12.15 p.m. Thessaloniki asked Hortiatis again whether the helicopter had landed. When Hortiatis assured it that it had, Thessaloniki’s tower said that the welcoming committee at the monastic community on Mount Athos was worried because the patriarchal delegation had not arrived. «Oh,» replied the operator at Hortiatis. «The truth is that he did not call us to say he had landed,» he added. «I could see him at (Cape) Drepano, afterward he said he would climb to 4,500 feet and he did not call me again.» The operator had just assumed that the helicopter had landed and presented his assumption as fact – as if an aircraft’s being close to its destination was as good as a safe arrival. At 12.19, Thessaloniki informed Athens that there was a problem with Flight HM001, the Chinook. «The truth is that for an hour or so, he should have landed and they are looking for him,» Thessaloniki said. «They’re looking for him?» Athens asked. «We too should be looking, I think,» Thessaloniki said. «Of course you should. You should have started already,» Athens responded. Then the air traffic controllers thought they should check with the helicopter’s base at Megara, west of Athens. At 12.35, the supervisor of air traffic control in the Athens Flight Information Region (who had got in on the act at 12.29 and said that the Search and Rescue Coordination Center would be informed) told Thessaloniki that the Chinook pilot’s colleagues at Megara had called him on his cell phone and told Athens that they had spoken with him and he was flying over Mount Athos. At 12.39, Greece’s air defense control also stepped in and repeated the «news» about the purported phone call between the Chinook and Megara. No time was given for this purported conversation nor any further explanation. In brief, the helicopter had crashed shortly before 11. At 11.25 the radar operator at Hortiatis said it had landed. At 12.16, more than an hour later, Hortiatis admitted that it had not confirmed the helicopter had landed. It was only then that anyone could begin to consider a search and rescue operation, which probably began sometime shortly after. Given this confusion, it is hardly surprising that it is still not clear when the government learned of the crash (or at least that the helicopter was missing). With the whole government up in Thessaloniki for the opening of the International Fair, with ministers inaugurating pavilions, attending official luncheons and making speeches, there was bound to be a measure of confusion and delay. Some reports said that Deputy Foreign Minister Panayiotis Skandalakis, who organized Petros’s visit to Mount Athos, was informed at 12.30. The government has denied this. Health Minister Nikitas Kaklamanis said he learned of the missing helicopter at 1.50 p.m., shortly after the National First Aid Center was informed. That would mean the health minister was told nearly 20 minutes before the defense minister. It is not clear when Prime Minister Karamanlis was briefed. The following day, Karamanlis announced that because of the delay in the military’s reaction, the head of the air force general staff, Lt. Gen. Panayiotis Papanikolaou, would be replaced. The defense minister’s resignation had been offered but was not accepted. Karamanlis said there was no political responsibility involved. Spiliotopoulos ordered an internal investigation into why military officials took over an hour and a half to establish that the helicopter was missing and why it took so long to brief him. A military prosecutor is investigating the causes of the crash and an Athens prosecutor is looking into reports that the helicopter had presented operational problems from the date of its delivery in December 2001. The government which came to power in March may not be responsible for a helicopter crashing into the sea. But it is clearly responsible for overseeing the state apparatus. If the transcripts of air traffic controllers that have been leaked to the media are correct, much of the blame will be thrown on the operator of the air force radar at Hortiatis. His assumption that the Chinook landed safely was responsible for the longest part of the delay. But someone must be responsible for the fact that there was no backup system to ensure that if a link in the chain of responsibility broke this would not mean that an aircraft would be left to its fate. So many agencies and control towers were involved but none had ensured that a flight from point A to point B would be completed before everyone relaxed. In short, no one knew who was ultimately responsible for the flight. Someone who should have been doing his job did not do it well and there was no one to ensure that he did. This is a chilling echo of a tragedy of a previous September: the Express Samina sinking in 2000. An officer who should have been guiding the ship into Paros’s port was allegedly not paying attention to the ship’s course. The captain was in his cabin. The ferry crashed into well-marked rocks and sank quickly, with the loss of 80 lives. All the heroics of Paros’s fishermen and fellow passengers could not bring back the dead. All the handwringing about the lack of responsibility could not prevent the accident after the fact. One person’s mistake allowed great loss of life – and there was no safety net. If we learn one thing from this Great Greek Summer, let it be that we do not need to make complicated plans for the worst thing that can happen – we simply need to do our jobs to prevent the worst from happening.

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