ATHENS, Greece – Investigators trying to determine why a Cyprus airliner crashed in the Greek mountains focused on reports of past technical problems, with a former airline mechanic saying Tuesday the jet lost cabin pressure last year because of an improperly sealed door.
Autopsy results indicated that dozens of people, including the co-pilot and a flight attendant, were alive when Helios Airways (search) Flight ZU522 crashed Sunday near Grammatiko, 25 miles north of Athens, killing everyone on board. The body of the German pilot, who reportedly was not in the cockpit before the crash, has not been found.
Coroners hope test results will show if toxic gases rendered the people on board unconscious or whether the passengers and crew were knocked out by a sudden decompression of the cabin and cockpit at 34,000 feet.
Officials said they found only the exterior container of the cockpit voice recorder — one of two "black boxes" — from the plane, hampering investigative efforts.
The voice recorder's internal components were ejected from the container when the Boeing 737-300 (search) crashed, said Akrivos Tsolakis, head of the Greek airline safety committee.
"The only fortunate event in the investigation is that we have the flight data recorder," Tsolakis said, adding that it would be sent to Paris on Wednesday for decoding.
American experts, including a representative of the plane's manufacturer, were assisting the search for the rest of the recorder.
The recorder picks up conversation inside the cockpit but saves only the last 30 minutes of sound. Because the airplane appeared to have been flying disabled for several hours, it was unclear how useful the recorder would be.
The plane was flying from Cyprus to Athens and was to have continued to Prague, Czech Republic. About 30 minutes after takeoff, the pilots reported problems with the air-conditioning system.
Also, Greek state TV quoted Cyprus' transport minister as saying the plane had decompression problems in the past. Decompression would cause a rapid loss of oxygen on board, giving passengers and flight crew a few seconds to put on oxygen masks before losing consciousness amid subzero temperatures. Death would be minutes behind.
A former chief mechanic for Helios, Kyriakos Pilavakis, said the plane lost cabin pressure during a December flight after a door apparently was not sealed properly.
"It was a flight from Warsaw ... The indications were that air had escaped from one of the doors — the right door on the rear," Pilavakis told Greece's state-run NET television.
Pilavakis, who said he resigned from the airline in January, gave six hours of testimony to Cyprus investigators, who have seized maintenance records and other documents from Helios.
But Helios managing director Dimitris Pantazis insisted the plane was air-worthy.
"I understand the pain and grief felt across Cyprus," he said. "Safety was always our first priority. This was never compromised for the sake of profit ... We must stop speculation and let the experts do their work."
The plane was manufactured in 1998 and delivered to Helios in April 2004, the company said.
Autopsies have been performed on the 26 bodies identified by relatives, including those of co-pilot Pambos Haralambous and chief flight attendant Louiza Vouteri, which were found close together near the cockpit wreckage, coroners Nikos Kalogrias and Fillipos Koutsaftis said.
The autopsy results showed all 26 were alive — but not necessarily conscious — when the plane crashed into a 1,500-foot-high mountain while being escorted by two Greek F-16 fighter jets after losing contact with air traffic controllers.
The fighter pilots reported seeing the co-pilot slumped over the controls in the cockpit, apparently unconscious. There was no sign of the pilot, and oxygen masks dangled from the ceiling.
Later in the flight, the fighter pilots reported seeing two unidentified people in the cockpit trying to take control of the plane.
German media reported that the captain was a former East German airline pilot who worked for a Dublin, Ireland-based agency that supplies pilots to airlines.
The Bild daily newspaper said that Hans-Juergen Merten, 58, had flown with Helios for six months but was an employee of Direct Personnel International. The company was "working with" Merten's family, managing director Shane Pollard said.
The Thueringer Allgemeine daily reported that Merten was a native of the east German state of Thuringia and worked for the former East German Interflug carrier.
Interflug went out of business after German reunification in 1990 and, like many of its pilots who had flown the airline's Soviet-built planes, Merten would have undergone retraining to fly Western aircraft.
Relatives of the victims visited the crash site for the first time Tuesday to attend an outdoor memorial service beside the tail of the plane. Many laid red roses at the site.
"I just want to bring them home for the burial," said Marios Tsopanis, whose sister, Christiana Douna, died in the crash with her husband and three children.
Around Greece, three minutes of silence were observed at noon and flags at all public buildings were lowered to half-staff.
In Cyprus, President Tassos Papadopoulos attended a church service on the island to mark three days of national mourning.
"We remain at the side of the grief-stricken families ... The government will not stop at messages of condolence. Those responsible — whoever they are — will be found," Papadopoulos said.