A Cypriot plane full of vacationers slammed into a hill north of Athens on Sunday after at least one pilot lost consciousness from lack of oxygen, killing all 121 people aboard - more than a third of them children.
The cause of Greece's deadliest plane crash appeared to be technical failure, resulting in high-altitude decompression, and not terrorism, authorities said. A transport official said all 115 passengers and six crew may have been dead when the plane went down.
Helios Airways flight ZU522 was headed from Larnaca, Cyprus, to Athens International Airport when it crashed at 12:05 p.m. near Grammatiko, a town 25 miles north of the Greek capital. Flaming debris, luggage and bits of human remains were strewn across a ravine and surrounding hills.
Family members wept in anguish as they waited at the Athens and Larnaca airports. When news of the crash emerged at Larnaca, relatives swarmed the airline counters, shouting "murderers" and "you deserve lynching.,"AP reports.
A man whose cousin was a passenger told Greece's Alpha television he received a cell-phone text message minutes before the crash. “He told me the pilots were unconscious. ... He said: "Farewell, cousin, here we're frozen," Sotiris Voutas said - a reference to it being cold in the plane, a sign of decompression.
The head of the Greek airline safety committee, Akrivos Tsolakis, said the crash was the "worst accident we've ever had." He said the plane's black boxes had been recovered, containing data and voice recordings valuable for determining the cause.
"There apparently was a lack of oxygen, which is usually the case when the cabin is depressurized," Tsolakis was quoted as saying by AP.
The F-16 jets met the plane at 34,000 feet, the Greek air force said. At that altitude, 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. It is like standing on top of Mount Everest," he said. "But if you are down at 10,000 feet, you can breathe for a lot longer."
The flight was to have continued to Prague, Czech Republic, after stopping in Athens. The crash occurred at the height of Europe's summer vacation, when Mediterranean resorts like Cyprus are packed with tourists. The area was likely to be particularly crowded, because Monday is a national holiday in Greece and Cyprus.
There were 48 children aboard, mostly Greek Cypriots, Helios spokesman Giorgos Dimitriou said in Athens.
Greek state television quoted the Cyprus transport minister as saying the plane had decompression problems in the past. However, Helios representative Dimitriou said the plane had "no problems and was serviced just last week." In June 2000, a Boeing 737-200 of the Canadian carrier WestJet lost cabin pressure because pilots mistakenly shut down auxiliary power. Cabin altitude reached 24,000 feet before the plane descended and pressurization became normal. None of the 118 passengers was injured.
At the Greek crash scene, more than 100 firefighters, backed by planes and helicopters dropping water, fought a brush fire caused by the crash. The plane was in at least three pieces: the tail, a bit of the cockpit and a piece of fuselage that witnesses said contained many bodies. Sections of the plane were ablaze.
More than a dozen ambulances removed remains, and fire department vehicles brought body bags. Black-robed Greek Orthodox priests were on hand.
"There is wreckage everywhere. Things here are very difficult, they are indescribable," Grammatiko Mayor George Papageorgiou said. “All the residents are here trying to help."
Relatives from Cyprus were to be taken a reception center near the Athens airport, but the remains of many victims were charred beyond identification. The Cyprus transport minister said DNA tests would be necessary.
Greek Prime Minister Costas Caramanlis canceled a holiday on the Aegean island of Tinos to return to Athens. The Cypriot president also canceled a vacation.
Helios Airways, Cyprus' first private airline, was founded in 1999. It operates a fleet of Boeing 737s to cities including London; Athens; Sofia, Bulgaria; Dublin, Ireland; and Strasbourg, France. EU newcomer Cyprus is divided into Turkish and Greek sectors. Most of its 800,000 people are Greek Cypriots.