Video: Black boxes from deadly crash found

By Lester Holt
NBC News
updated 8/15/2005 8:16:44 PM ET 2005-08-16T00:16:44

On Cyprus Monday, police raided the offices of Helios airlines, not saying what they were looking for. Meanwhile, a devastated community gathered, their grief — and that of family members’ — were compounded by the mystery of the disaster.

Helios Airways flight 522 lifted off from Larnaca at 9:00 am local time, bound for Prague with a stop in Athens, reaching its cruising altitude of 35,000 feet in twenty minutes.

Air traffic control lost contact with the plane at 10:07 a.m., and at 11:20 a.m. Greek F-16 fighter jets intercept the plane, still at about 35,000 feet, reporting the co-pilot slumped over the controls, and the captain nowhere in sight.

The F-16s can do little but watch as the plane crashed into a hillside 35 minutes later. Early indications are that emergency oxygen masks had been deployed, making cabin de-pressurization the leading theory.

“The pilot has approximately 30 seconds at 34,000 feet to react, put his mask on, get control of the aircraft,” says former director of FAA Medical Research Dr. James Harris.

The chief coroner says autopsies reveal at least some of the passengers were alive when the plane hit the ground, but most were frozen.

Early reports of a passenger sending a text message from the plane, however, are now believed to have been a hoax.

Meanwhile, both black boxes are being examined, but officials say the voice recorder was badly damaged.

Minutes before their last radio contact, the crew reported problems with the plane’s air- conditioning, suggesting the problem could have begun gradually.

“More likely, it was a bit more of a subtle decompression, as opposed to the explosive decompressions that’s seen so often on television and in movies,” says aviation safety consultant John Cox.

It was depressurization that is believed to have killed golfer Payne Stewart when his learjet crashed in 1999.

In both cases there was no apparent attempt to descend.

“They need to get the airplane started down, and this is what the pilots are trained to do,” says Cox. That fact they didn’t start down, leads some experts to wonder whether it was not one — but a series of failures that caused this tragedy.

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