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Last Updated: Monday, 15 August 2005, 10:22 GMT 11:22 UK
Greece hunts for air crash clues
A plane's tail fin after crashing near Athens

Both black boxes from the Cypriot airliner which crashed near Athens have been recovered as Greece investigates its worst air disaster.

All 121 passengers and crew aboard Flight 522 died when it hit a hill after an apparent drop in cabin pressure knocked out both pilots.

Tests on the bodies appear to confirm that most of the victims froze to death before the actual crash.

Bereaved Cypriots are to fly to Greece to identify the bodies of loved ones.

Some relatives vented fury on Helios Airways which was flying the Boeing 737.

Amid shouts of "murderers", relatives accused Helios of allowing an unsafe aircraft to take to the skies, a charge the company denies.

The plane, which was bound for Prague with a scheduled stop in Athens, crashed shortly after noon local time (0900 GMT) on Sunday.

'Frozen solid'

Confirming the discovery of the plane's second flight recorder, chief investigator Akrivos Tsolakis said it was in "very bad state".

Bereaved relatives wait at Larnaca Airport, Cyprus, to fly to Greece
As many as 20 children or teenagers are among the dead

Crews of Greek F-16 fighter jets which were scrambled after contact with the airliner was lost reported seeing the pilots slumped in the cabin.

Returning for a second look, they saw two unidentified people trying to take control of the plane.

One theory is that sudden depressurisation in the cockpit overcame the pilots before they could take on oxygen and bring the aircraft to a lower, safer altitude, experts say.

A man whose cousin was on the plane told Greek TV he had received a text message from him saying that people aboard were freezing.

Post-mortems have shown that passengers' bodies were "frozen solid", a Greek defence ministry source was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying.

"It seems that the deceased, in most cases, although not all, expired before the crash," said Interior Minister Prokopis Pavlopoulos.

David Kaminski Morrow, a UK-based flight journalist, suggested those on board might have blacked out before the actual crash because of the high altitude.

"If the aircraft is at 30,000 feet [9,144m], you don't stay conscious for long, maybe 15 to 30 seconds," Mr Kaminski Morrow told the Associated Press news agency.

When the F-16s approached the airliner, it was flying at 10,363m (34,000 feet).

The Greek government said there was no reason to suspect terrorism.

Priests wait

Cyprus has declared three days of public mourning for the worst accident to hit the island in decades.

1999: Established as first independent airline in Cyprus
2000: First chartered flight
2001: First scheduled flight
Flies to UK, Strasbourg, Sofia, Athens, Dublin, Warsaw and Prague
Operates four Boeing 737 planes

In Greece, a special reception centre has been prepared for victims' relatives in the town of Marathon, not far from St Theodore's Hill where the Boeing came down.

Orthodox priests and specially trained counsellors will be on hand to try to comfort the families as they attempt to identify the dead.

Cypriot Transport Minister Haris Thrassou has denied reports of 48 children being aboard the plane, telling Reuters the number of people below the age of 20 was "between 15 and 20".

Helios insists its plane was airworthy but Greek television has reported that the 737 had a history of technical faults.

On one recent flight from Warsaw to Larnaca, it said, passengers were taken off the plane suffering from respiratory problems.

"All our aircraft are checked very, very thoroughly according to international standards," Vicky Xitas, Helios' commercial manager, said on Monday.

Helios has also denied delaying the release of the passenger list although a company representative acknowledged that a list released on Monday had been "not definitive".

It was given out to "to try to help the grieving relatives", Nicos Anastassiades said.

1. 0900 [0700GMT]: Helios Airways Flight ZU522 leaves Larnaca bound for Prague via Athens
2. 0920 approx: Plane reaches cruising altitude of 35,000ft
3. 0937: Plane enters Greek airspace
4. 1007: Air traffic control unable to contact aircraft
5. 1030: Greek ATC issues "Renegade alert"
6. 1055: F16 fighter aircraft scramble
7. 1120: F16s intercept aircraft; pilots observed slumped over controls
8. 1205: Aircraft crashes near Grammatiko, 40km north of Athens

Q&A: Greek air crash
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