The strange fate of Flight ZU522

Observations on crash

Ninety-five bodies lie in an Athens morgue, testimony to the loss of life aboard Helios Airways Flight ZU522 on 14 August. None has a name; none has any identifiable attribute.

When relatives visited the mortuary to pick out those they had lost in Greece's biggest and strangest air disaster, they spent far longer with the dead than anyone expected. I watched as they waited in the merciless midday sun, and I watched as they came out, wailing cries of grief. The horrible truth, too awful to articulate, was that most of the corpses were charred beyond recognition.

The following day I visited the scene of the crash. The Cypriot airliner struck a mountain cliff before disintegrating over a sprawling ravine. Wreckage littered the lush, bucolic countryside and Inspector Giorgos Polydoras pointed out the Boeing 737's tail. The tail section was evidently the first bit of the plane to fall to earth. Nearly intact, it lay on its side with the golden features of the sun god Apollo, the airline's cheery symbol, staring into the Attic sky. The sight took my breath away.

I was similarly stunned when those who had been first on the scene reported what they had seen. Contrary to widespread belief, insisted residents of the nearby town of Grammatiko, the blaze that was soon to engulf the area had yet to take hold.

"When we got there, we saw bodies everywhere, strewn among the wreckage of the plane," said Vassilis Tourkoantonis.

"There were small children still locked into their seats, like plastic dolls. There were small fires, burning here and there, but you could have pissed and put them out. Instead, they were allowed to get out of control. There was something out there that the state wanted to hide."

When George Papageorgiou, the mayor of Grammatiko, visited the site he, too, saw little sign of flames that would reduce bodies and debris to cinders. "There were dead people everywhere but they weren't burned," he said. "I could smell no jet fuel. There was no raging fire, only smoke from smouldering pieces of the plane wreckage scattered across the hillside."

"Those bodies were still recognisable," said Costas Michas, another eyewitness. "They could very easily have been rescued from complete 'cremation' if the rescue services hadn't demanded that we move away."

This notion that "the state" had something to gain by allowing the flames to rage out of control is just one of many conspiracy theories to emerge since the crash, despite initial findings blaming the accident squarely on decompression - with the resulting lack of oxygen possibly rendering all 121 passengers and crew unconscious.

Could the plane have been shot down? After all, two Greek F-16 fighter jets were scrambled to shadow the airliner as it circled aimlessly over the Aegean. Could it have been taken over by a terrorist posing as a pilot? After all, the body of its mysterious former East German pilot has not, as far as anyone knows, been found.

And who was the man reported by the F-16 pilots as having tried desperately, minutes before the crash, to grapple with the controls on the flight deck as members of the crew lay unconscious around him?

With the investigation into the crash expected to take at least six months, it is unlikely that answers will be found soon, but what is certain is that 95 bodies will remain in the Athens morgue, referred to only as numbers, until DNA tests eventually allow them to be given names. And Flight ZU522 will go down as a most peculiar episode in aviation history.

Helena Smith is the Guardian's Athens-based correspondent

This article first appeared in the 29 August 2005 issue of the New Statesman, President Hillary: can she do it?