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Possible effort to save Cypriot jet seen

A crew member is focus of reports amid crash probe

ATHENS -- A crew member or a passenger may have made a desperate attempt to save a Cypriot passenger jet before it crashed into a mountainside north of Athens, killing all 121 people aboard, Greek media reported yesterday.

The reports surfaced as families in Cyprus buried victims of the Helios Airways crash on Sunday. Investigators were trying to determine whether anything on board had made the passengers and crew lose consciousness before the plane went down. They were also looking into reports of technical problems.

Two Greek Air Force F-16 jets scrambled after the Helios flight lost radio contact flew by the airliner over the Aegean Sea. The F-16 pilots reported seeing someone in the cockpit -- probably a man -- take control of the plane as it flew in a gradually descending holding pattern, apparently on autopilot, at about 37,000 feet, near the Athens airport.

That person then banked the plane away from Athens, lowering it first to 2,000 feet and then climbing back up to 7,000 feet before the plane apparently ran out of fuel and crashed, state-run NET television reported, quoting unnamed Defense Ministry sources.

Greek officials declined to comment until the end of the investigation. Officials have not released information about the last half-hour of the flight or what the F-16 pilots had reported about how the plane crashed.

Relatives have said one of the flight attendants, Andreas Prodromou, 25, had a pilot's license. But the chief investigator, Akrivos Tsolakis, said only that someone on board other than the pilot and copilot was qualified to fly.

Coroners said the only identified flight attendant's body found near the wreckage was that of Louiza Vouteri. The plane went down near the village of Grammatiko, 25 miles north of Athens.

The F-16 pilots also reported seeing the copilot slumped on his seat, the pilot missing from his position and two other people in the cockpit, apparently trying to take control of the plane. It was unclear if that included the person who, media reports said, had tried to fly the plane.

The mystery surrounding the cause of the crash and reports that the aircraft had technical problems angered family members.

Relatives and politicians at the funeral in Cyprus of the copilot, Pambos Haralambous, demanded punishment for anyone found responsible for the disaster.

Haralambous's son, Yiannis, said his father, a flight engineer and a pilot for 25 years, had kept a detailed diary of his flights.

''He told me that if his diary was published, then the company would close," he said of Helios in a television interview before the funeral. The diary was believed to be missing in the wreckage.

Autopsy results on 26 bodies found that the passengers and at least two crew members -- including the copilot -- were alive when the plane crashed. Coroners voiced hope that tests would show whether toxic gases might have had made them unconscious.

Coroners also said a 5-year-old boy was alive for a second after the plane crashed. An autopsy on his body found that he had inhaled soot from a fire from the crash; later tests showed he inhaled only a small amount of soot, consistent with drawing his last breath.

In a grisly reminder of post-Sept. 11 concerns over suicide pilots, the aircraft was declared a ''renegade" when it did not respond to radio calls, said a government spokesman, Theodoros Roussopoulos.

While the move cleared the way for Prime Minister Costas Caramanlis to order the F-16s to shoot the plane down if it was deemed a threat, Greek officials have said that Caramanlis had not considered this option.

The flight, from Larnaca, Cyprus, to Athens, was carrying 115 passengers -- including 20 children -- and six crew. Investigators were still searching for the remains of three people. Many of the bodies were burned beyond recognition from a brush fire sparked by the crash, and DNA analysis will be necessary for identification.

The plane's data recorder and the remains of the voice recorder are being examined in Paris.

Investigators were also looking into reports that the plane had suffered technical problems.

A former chief mechanic for Helios, Kyriakos Pilavakis, said the Boeing 737-300 had lost cabin pressure during a flight from Warsaw in December.

Pilavakis said that a door apparently had not been sealed properly in that flight.

''The indications were that air had escaped from one of the doors -- the right door on the rear," Pilavakis told NET television.

Pilavakis, who said he resigned from the airline in January, gave six hours of testimony to investigators in Cyprus, who have seized maintenance records and other documents from Helios.

The Helios managing director, Dimitris Pantazis, insisted that the plane was airworthy.

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