Cypriot Airliner 'Black Boxes' Sent to France

ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- The flight recorders from the Cypriot airliner that crashed outside Athens will be sent to France for examination to determine why it went down, possibly with all 121 people on board already dead, officials said Monday.

In Cyprus, the pilots and crew of Helios Airways refused to fly after reports that passengers had complained that the Boeing 737 that crashed Sunday had experienced past technical problems. The company would not say why its crews were refusing to fly.

U.S. aviation experts were to help investigate the crash, which appeared to be caused by a technical failure that resulted in a sudden drop of air pressure. A Cypriot transport official said the 115 passengers and six crew may have been dead when the plane hit a mountainside.

As weeping relatives gathered at an Athens' morgue to identify remains, searchers were still looking for three bodies at the crash site 25 miles north of the capital, firefighting officials said. The three reportedly included the German pilot, Marten Hans Jurgen, 50, from Berlin.

Greek deputy Health Minister Giorgos Constantopoulos said 21 children were on board Helios Airways flight ZU522 from Cyprus to Athens, ''all aged 4 and above.'' Greek and Cypriot officials originally said there were 48 children. No explanation for the discrepancy was given.

According to a casualty list released by the Cypriot government, at least 10 families with children were among the dead. Most of the passengers and crew were Cypriot, but at least 12 Greeks and the German pilot were on board.

The body of the Cypriot co-pilot, Pambos Haralambous, was found in the cockpit. Greek air force F-16 pilots, who were sent to intercept the plane when it lost radio contact as it entered Greek air space, reported seeing him slumped over the controls.

Greek state television quoted the Cyprus transport minister as saying the plane had decompression problems in the past. But a Helios representative said the plane had ''no problems and was serviced just last week.''

The head of the Greek airline safety committee, Akrivos Tsolakis, said the plane's flight data and cockpit voice recorders would be sent to the French air safety investigators in Paris for further examination.

The voice recorder was badly damaged by the crash and ensuing fire, Tsolakis said.

''It's in a bad state and, possibly, it won't give us the information we need,'' he said. ''Both boxes will be sent to Paris where a French committee will help us and the foreign experts that are here to decode''

He expressed confidence his committee would be able to reach a conclusion ''in a few days, a very few days.''

Tsolakis said Greek investigators would be helped by U.S. experts following a request made by the American government because the aircraft was manufactured in the United States.

The pilots of the airliner had reported air conditioning system problems to Cyprus air traffic control about a half-hour after takeoff. Within minutes, after entering Greek air space over the Aegean Sea, the Boeing 737 lost all radio contact. Two Greek F-16 fighter jets were dispatched soon afterward.

When the F-16s intercepted the plane at 34,000 feet, the pilots saw the airliner's co-pilot slumped over his seat. The captain was not in the cockpit, and oxygen masks dangled inside the cabin, government spokesman Theodoros Roussopoulos said.

He said the air force pilots also saw two people possibly trying to take control of the plane; it was unclear if they were crew members or passengers. The plane apparently was on automatic pilot when it crashed, a Helios spokesman said.

''When a pilot has no communication with the control tower, the procedure dictates that other planes must accompany and help the plane land. Unfortunately, it appeared that the pilot was already dead as was, possibly, everyone else on the plane,'' Cyprus Transport Minister Haris Thrasou said.

At 34,000 feet, the effects of depressurization are swift, said David Kaminski Morrow of the British-based Air Transport Intelligence magazine.

''If the aircraft is at 30,000 feet, you don't stay conscious for long, maybe 15 to 30 seconds,'' he said. ''But if you are down at 10,000 feet, you can breathe for a lot longer.''

Liz Verdier, a spokeswoman for Boeing, said the 737s, like all Boeing planes, are equipped with warning systems that alert pilots when decompression is occurring. She could not provide details of how the warning system works.

About 100 relatives arrived from Cyprus on at least one special flight from the eastern Mediterranean island and were taken to the morgue by bus. Others arrived in Athens from other parts of Greece to identify victims.

''I lost my son, his wife and my three grandchildren. I want those responsible for these flying cemeteries to be punished,'' Anastasios Koudas said at Athens' airport.

Deputy Health Minister Thanassis Yiannopoulos said 18 bodies had been taken to the morgue. The other recognizable remains were being brought to the morgue while about 30 would have to be identified by DNA.

Turkey's prime minister on Monday offered his condolences to the people of Cyprus, whose government Turkey does not formally recognize.

''Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan shares the sadness and grief of the Greek Cypriot people,'' the premier's spokesman Akif Beki said in a statement.

Cyprus was partitioned into Greek and Turkish sectors after Turkey invaded the island in 1974 in response to an abortive coup by supporters of union with Greece. The internationally recognized Greek Cypriot-led government does not have diplomatic relations with Turkey and its authority is confined to the south of a cease-fire line dividing the island.


Associated Press writers Alex Efty in Nicosia, Cyprus, and Derek Gatopoulos in Grammatiko, Greece, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press