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Starved of oxygen, plane crashes

Grammatiko (Greece), Aug. 14 (Reuters): A Cypriot airliner crashed into a mountainous area north of Athens today, killing all 121 people on board, after apparently suffering a loss of cabin pressure or oxygen.

“The pilot has turned blue,” a passenger said in a mobile phone text message to his cousin, according to Greek television. “Cousin farewell, we’re freezing.”

The crash was the worst airline disaster in Greek history.

Greek TV station Alpha said the pilot told air traffic controllers the Helios Airways Boeing 737 was experiencing air conditioning problems, before communication with the plane ' flying at 35,000 feet en route from Larnaca in Cyprus to Prague via Athens ' was lost.

A Greek police spokesman said 115 passengers and six crew were on board the flight, of whom 59 adults and eight children were heading to Athens and 48 to Prague, including two children.

Rescuers said they had found no survivors, and health officials said they had started receiving the first bodies from the burning wreckage, scattered widely about the mountainous area 40 km north of Athens.

Dense black smoke billowed from several small fires. Only the tail section, bearing the Helios logo, was recognisable among the debris. “I saw many bodies scattered around, all of them wearing (oxygen) masks,” one witness said.

Cypriot transport minister Haris Thrasou said in Larnaca: “The state of the bodies is such that it is difficult to recognise at first sight ... This is why genetic material will be used (for identification).”

Police said 35 fire trucks, eight fire-fighting planes and three helicopters were at the scene, along with 105 special rescue operations officers.

Akrivos Tsolaki, head of the accident investigation committee, said at the crash site the plane’s two black boxes ' voice and data recorders ' had been located.

At Larnaca airport desperate relatives demanded Helios release the passenger list. Some chanted: “Helios are murderers”.

Airport officials in Cyprus said flight HCY522 left Larnaca at 0700 GMT and lost contact an hour-and-a-half later.

Two Greek F-16 fighter jets were scrambled after the plane lost contact with the 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 government spokesman said.

The ministry said it suspected the plane’s oxygen supply or pressurisation system may have malfunctioned.

“We do not have the slightest indication that there was a terrorist act,” said Thrasou in Larnaca. Greek defence ministry officials said 90 minutes elapsed between the alert first being raised at 10:30 am and the plane crashing at 12:03 pm.

A source said the F-16 pilots were being flown to defence ministry headquarters for debriefing. “Their testimony is crucial for the continuation of the investigation. They are the ones with the last visuals of the plane.”

Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis broke off his holiday to return to Athens, and Cyprus declared three days of mourning.

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