Cypriot court clears all of wrongdoing in Greek air disaster

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Thursday, December 22, 2011

This computer generated image shows the unresponsive aircraft being shadowed by Greek fighter jets.
Image: Anynobody.

A two-year trial concluded yesterday in Cyprus with the court in Nicosia clearing former senior staff of Helios Airways of manslaughter. They, alongside the defunct airline, had been accused of responsibility for killing 119 in a crash near Athens.

All 121 on board Flight 522 were killed but the prosecution did not charge manslaughter in relation to the two flight crew, deeming them partially responsible for their own deaths. The accident remains the worst air disaster to befall both Greece and Cyprus. Most victims were Cypriot tourists.

The Cypriot jet left Larnaca on August 14, 2005. It was headed for Prague in the Czech Republic. Contact was quickly lost with the aircraft, which flew itself as far as the Greek capital on autopilot.

The Boeing 737's pressurisation system is believed to have been incorrectly set by maintenance and oxygen starvation had knocked out German Captain Hans-Jurgen Merten and Cypriot co-pilot Pambos Charalambous. They never checked the system before takeoff, which had undergone testing prior to flight.

An alarm had sounded both on the ground and in the air but had been ignored by those flying, as the same alarm was used for a different problem and the pilots therefore misinterpreted the alarm. This design would later be cited by victims' relatives in a civil case against Boeing.

As the unresponsive jet entered Greek airspace two F-16 fighter jets intercepted. The air force reported back that the civilian craft's pilots were slumped over the controls. Passengers were similarly incapacitated. The plane reached Athens International Airport — an intermediate stop in Athens was planned — by itself and then began circling the area awaiting human input.

That input eventually came in the form of a trainee pilot working on-board as a flight attendant. Investigators believe Andreas Prodromou had used multiple crew oxygen cylinders to be the last conscious person on board. The fighter pilots were able to watch him enter the cockpit.

Map of the flight path.
Image: Mysid.

F-16 pilot Panayiotis Athanasopoulos was the last person to see Prodromou alive. He previously told the trial of initially receiving no response when signalling the jet in an attempt to get the pilots to follow him, then discovering the flight crew unconscious. The captain was out of sight. He testified he also signalled people wearing oxygen masks in the passenger cabin with similar lack of response. Prodromou, 25, entered the cockpit as the jet began losing altitude.

After trying but failing to resuscitate Merten, the fighter pilots saw the trainee pilot take over the controls himself in a bid to save the plane. He was out of time. By then the aircraft had been in the air for two hours, and it ran out of fuel before it could reach the runway. Although many were deeply comatose from lack of oxygen, everyone on board was still alive when the plane crashed into a mountain at Grammatiko, north of Athens.

Athanasopoulos says he gesticulated to Proprodomou and signalled him to land upon getting his attention. The trainee pilot simply pointed downwards, after which he "looked ahead and did not look towards me again as the plane went down". The airliner struck the ground levelly on its underside after straightening out moments before impact. It was torn apart.

The following year saw an air accident report primarily citing human error, and an inquiry by ex-Judge Panayiotis Kallis. The Kallis report was never made public. Helios, which was renamed Ajet Airways, closed down in 2006. Helios and Boeing were sued by victims' relatives; they sought 76 million but reached a settlement for an undisclosed sum. The accident report had also blamed Boeing for an "ineffectiveness of measures" over the dual-purpose alarm system.

The five defendants were charged in 2008. The defunct airline and four senior staff members each faced 119 counts of manslaughter, and alternative counts of causing death by a reckless, thoughtless or dangerous act. This gave a total of 1,190 charges. Manslaughter carries a potential life sentence with up to four years available on the lesser charge. "The charges concern two of the three most serious offences under the Cyprus penal code," deputy attorney general Akis Papasavvas said at the time.

The prosecution case was that the pilots were unfit to fly and the defendants were negligent in letting them at the controls. The state prosecutor therefore needed to prove the actions of Merten and Charalambous caused the disaster, as well as that those in the dock were responsible for their employment and aware — or ought to have been aware — of inadequacies in their competence.

The prosecution had noted the accused failed to seek references from Jet2, Merten's last employer. He lost that job owing to failings in his duties and was later the subject of Helios co-pilots' complaints. Charalambous was considered unlikely to achieve promotion to pilot and his ability to handle stress was questioned at trial.

A file photo of the aircraft from less than a year before it crashed.
Image: Alan Lebeda.

In reaching a majority decision, two of the three judges noted Helios chief executive Andreas Drakos and managing director Demetris Pantazis would be acquitted even if the prosecution proved its case as they were not responsible for employing the pair. This fell to co-accused operations manager George Kikkides and chief pilot Ianko Stoimenov.

In any event, the verdict described "a dead-end for any procedure of identifying the competence of Merten" with only Jet2 among his previous employers being known to have a negative view of him. Subsequent official evaluations rated both him and Charalambous suitably competent to fly.

"The lack of any causal association between the defendants and the negligence they were charged with for the fatal accident completely disconnects the defendants with the accident," said the 170-page verdict. "Regardless... [of] how the charges are viewed, they remain groundless and without supporting evidence. It's judged that this reason is sufficient to dismiss all charges and acquit all defendants."

Assize Court President Charis Solomonides read the decision: "we conclude, without reservation, that no case has been proven prima-facie against all the defendants in all the charges they face and therefore, all the defendants are acquitted and charges are dropped." Solomonides made repeated mention of an inability for the prosecution to link the pilots' actions to those on trial, and noted that therefore no assessment had been made of their performance that day.

Judge Nicolas Santis dissented. Nonetheless, he too had criticisms of the prosecution. He said they failed to properly define 'competence' and called very few experts to testify. Victims' relatives shouted in the courtroom after he finished reading his opinion; cries included "killers!" and "is this justice?".

Victims' relatives had in fact predicted the acquittal and blamed the state for what they characterised as a poorly presented case. Relatives’ Committee president Nicolas Yiasoumis said "It was common knowledge that proceedings were weak due to the phrasing of the charges." There were also renewed calls for publication of the Kallis report. Yiasoumis claimed the Kallis report reached different conclusions to those used at trial, and said "We did not believe they could be convicted on the basis of the argument that they had not employed the appropriate staff."

Attorney General Petros Clerides initially said an appeal will be decided upon once the decision has been read, and that the Law Office was presently studying it. Yiasoumis said relatives may take Cyprus to a European court over the case once Cypriot legal matters are concluded. Clerides has now confirmed an appeal will be filed, which the prosecution has two weeks to do. He defended the performance of those who prosecuted "this titanic case". The appeal would be to the Supreme Court.


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