August 14, 2005

Cypriot airliner carrying 121 crashes near Athens

By Brian Williams

ATHENS (Reuters) - A Cypriot airliner carrying 121 people
crashed north of Athens on Sunday after losing contact with air
traffic control minutes before it went down.

A Greek police spokeswoman said there were no immediate
reports of survivors.

Two Greek F-16 fighter jets were scrambled after the Helios
Airways jet, en route from Larnaca in Cyprus to Prague via
Athens, lost contact with the control tower at Athens
international airport.

One of the F-16 pilots reported that he could not see the
captain in the cockpit and his co-pilot appeared to be slumped
in his seat, a Defense Ministry official told Reuters.

"I saw the plane coming. I knew it was serious or that it
was some kind of VIP because I saw the two fighter jets," said
witness Dimitris Karezas, who owns a summer camp in the area.

"Two, three minutes later I heard a big bang and ever since
I've started looking for it, but I have not found anything
yet," he told reporters.

The plane was carrying 115 passengers and six crew.

Ambulances and firefighters went to the crash site,
uninhabited mountainous bushland in the Grammatiko area about
40 km (25 miles) north of Athens. Wreckage was spread over a
wide area and fire had broken out.

"There is a fire, lots of debris. We're trying to
extinguish the fire," regional fire brigade commander Nikos
Papamichos told Reuters from the site. "I can't say anything
more," he said when asked if there were any survivors.

A witness told state television: "From the way it looks it
doesn't seem like there should be survivors."

Military helicopters flying overhead reported debris and
smoke but no movement on the ground.

Greek TV station Alpha reported that the pilot had sent a
message to air traffic controllers saying the plane had a
problem with its air conditioning, after which all
communication was cut.

As the extent of the disaster became clear, Greek Prime
Minister Costas Karamanlis broke off his holiday on the Greek
island of Tinos to rush back to Athens.

Several witnesses said they saw the plane flying low over
Athens' eastern coastline before disappearing out of sight and
seconds later they heard a crash.

"I never saw it slowing down," one witness said on

Helios, Cyprus's first private carrier, established in
1999, flies to Dublin, Sofia, Warsaw, Prague, Strasbourg and
several British airports using a fleet of Boeing B737 aircraft.