ATHENS, Greece – A crew member or passenger may have made a last, 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 Wednesday.
The reports came as families in Cyprus began burying victims of the Helios Airways (search) crash Sunday. Investigators were trying to determine whether anything on board made the passengers and crew lose consciousness before the plane went down. They were also looking into prior 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 is flew in a gradually descending holding pattern, apparently on autopilot, at about 37,000 feet near 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 government and military officials refused to comment until the end of the investigation. Officials have not released any information about the last half-hour of the flight or what the F-16 pilots reported about how the plane crashed.
Relatives have said one of the flight attendants, 25-year-old Andreas Prodromou (search)(search), had a pilot's license. But chief investigator Akrivos Tsolakis said only that someone on board other than the pilot and co-pilot was qualified to fly.
Coroners said the only identified flight attendant found near the wreckage was Louiza Vouteri. The plane went down near the village of Grammatiko, 25 miles north of Athens.
The F-16 pilots also reported seeing the co-pilot 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, according to media reports, tried to fly the plane.
The mystery surrounding the cause of the plane crash and reports that the aircraft had past technical problems further angered grieving family members.
Relatives and politicians attending the funeral of co-pilot Pambos Haralambous (search) in Cyprus demanded punishment for anyone found responsible for the disaster.
Haralambous' son, Yiannis, said his father, a flight engineer and pilot for 25 years, kept a detailed diary of his flights.
"He told me that if his diary was published then the company (Helios) would close," he said in a TV interview before the funeral. The diary was believed to be missing in the wreckage.
Autopsy results on 26 bodies showed that the passengers and at least two crew members — including the co-pilot — were alive when the plane crashed. Coroners hoped further tests would show whether toxic gases possibly had rendered them unconscious.
Coroners also said a 5-year-old boy was alive for a second after the plane went down. An autopsy on his burned body revealed he inhaled soot from a fire sparked by the crash; later tests showed he inhaled only a small amount of soot, consistent with drawing his last breath.
In a grizzly reminder of post-Sept. 11 (search) concerns over suicide pilots, the aircraft was declared a "renegade" when it failed to respond to radio calls, government spokesman Theodoros Roussopoulos said.
While the move cleared the way for Prime Minister Costas Caramanlis (search) to order the F-16s to shoot the plane down if it was deemed a threat, Greek officials have said this was not an option that the prime minister considered.
The flight from Larnaca 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 flight data recorder and the remains of the badly damaged voice recorder are being examined in Paris.
Investigators were also looking into claims that the plane had suffered technical problems in the past.
A former chief mechanic for Helios, Kyriakos Pilavakis, said the Boeing 737-300 had lost cabin pressure during a flight from Warsaw in December, after a door apparently was not sealed properly.
"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.
Helios Managing Director Dimitris Pantazis (search) insisted the plane was air-worthy.