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Six may have been alive as airliner crashed

Officials in Cyprus, Greece seek answers

ATHENS -- Initial autopsies have indicated that at least six of the 121 people aboard the Cypriot airliner that crashed Sunday were alive, but not necessarily conscious, when it hit a hillside while on autopilot, a coroner said yesterday. Authorities, meanwhile, struggled to explain the actions of the pilot and crew.

The results of the first six autopsies shed some light on the final minutes of Helios Airlines Flight ZU522, which crashed Sunday in a suburban area of Athens, killing all 115 passengers and the six crew members.

In Larnaca, the Cypriot city from which the plane took off, police raided the offices of Helios Airlines, seeking ''evidence which could be useful for the investigation into possible criminal acts," said an official Cypriot government spokesman, Marios Karoyian.

Aviation officials have said the plane appeared to have lost pressure suddenly, causing a rapid loss of oxygen on board. In that case, passengers and flight crew would have had only seconds to put on oxygen masks before losing consciousness amid subzero temperatures. Death would be likely minutes after the loss of oxygen.

But two fighter jet pilots who scrambled to intercept the plane saw the copilot slumped over, the oxygen masks in the plane dangling, and two unidentified people trying to take control of the plane. The pilot was not in his seat when the plane crashed, about 2 1/2 hours after the crew first radioed in about air conditioning problems, officials said.

The fire department has said that none of those who died wore oxygen masks.

Athens's chief coroner, Fillipos Koutsaftis, said he could not determine whether the six people whose bodies were examined were conscious when the Helios Airways Boeing 737-300 plunged 34,000 feet into a mountainous area near the village of Grammatiko, 25 miles north of Athens.

''Our conclusion is they had circulation and were breathing at the time of death," Koutsaftis said.

Officials in the coroner's office said autopsies on another six bodies would be likely to show similar results. They asked not be named because the results had not yet been publicly released.

Greek and Cypriot officials have ruled out terrorism as a cause of the crash.

Investigators, to be joined by US specialists, were sending the plane's data and cockpit voice recorders to France for expert examinations.

But the head of Greece's airline safety committee, Akrivos Tsolakis, said the voice recorder was damaged and might not ''give us the information we need."

The pilots of two Greek Air Force F-16 fighter planes, scrambled to intercept the plane after it lost contact with air traffic control shortly after entering Greek airspace, said they saw the co-pilot slumped over the controls.

The pilot did not appear to be in the cockpit, and oxygen masks were seen dangling in the cabin. The fighter jet 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 might have run out of fuel after flying on autopilot, officials said.

Searchers were looking for three bodies, including the plane's German pilot, fire officials said. The body of the Cypriot copilot was found in the cockpit.

Authorities said the crash appeared to have been caused by a technical failure. A Cypriot transport official had said Sunday that the passengers and the crew may have been dead before the plane crashed.

In another development, police in northern Greece arrested a man who said he had received a telephone text message from a passenger. The man, identified as Nektarios-Sotirios Voutas, 32, told Greek television stations that his cousin on board the plane sent him a cellphone text message minutes before the crash saying: ''Farewell, cousin, here we're frozen."

Authorities said they had determined he was lying, and arrested him on charges of dissemination of false information.

A passenger list showed there were 20 children under the age of 16 on board, although the airline initially reported as many as 48 children were passengers.

The airliner's pilots had reported air conditioning system problems to Cyprus air traffic control after takeoff, and Greek state television quoted Cyprus's transport minister as saying the plane had had decompression problems. But a Helios representative said the plane had ''no problems and was serviced just last week."

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