A jet's fatal fall from 23,000 feet

SUN JOURNAL

Disaster: A flight carrying Greek officials and journalists started routinely. Then the plane suddenly plummeted. For survivors, the silence after was sadly telling.

September 17, 1999|By Alfonsos Vitalis | Alfonsos Vitalis,VRADYNI

Greece's deputy foreign minister, his 23-year-old son and four other people died in midair Tuesday night when their plane plummeted.

Yannis Kranidiotis, 51, had been flying from Athens to Bucharest, Romania, for a Balkan foreign ministers meeting when the Falcon jet dropped from 23,000 to 4,000 feet in minutes. The pilot and co-pilot were not seriously hurt and were able to land the plane at Bucharest's airport.

Two journalists, Kranidiotis' bodyguard and the executive jet's flight engineer also died. Seven of the 13 people aboard the plane survived; two of them were seriously injured. Among the survivors was Alfonsos Vitalis, a correspondent for the Athens newspaper Vradyni. Here is his account of the event.

It was the usual trip, and it began with the best of omens. Friends and old acquaintances met in the VIP lobby of Athens International Airport. Nina Assimakopoulou had arrived first, as always. We walked together to buy some magazines and then sat, waiting for the others.

Panagiotis Poulos, a TV cameraman, arrived next. He teased Nina, smiling. "Don't you have a home?" he asked. "You are always traveling with a suitcase in your hand."

Yiannis Androulakis and Grigoris Cinekoglou, the two pilots, arrived. The chitchat was getting lively.

Just before 9 p.m., Poulos called Dimitris Pantazopoulos, the diplomatic reporter for NET television, who was late. "I hit a traffic jam," Pantazopoulos said at the other end. "I am on Vouliagmenis Avenue. I'll be there, soon."

Yannis Kranidiotis, the deputy foreign minister, arrived with Grigoris Papadopoulos, the director of his diplomatic office, and a police officer, Nikos Assimakopoulos -- Nina Assimakopoulos's cousin.

"Are we all here guys?" Kranidiotis asked.

"Let's wait five more minutes for Dimitris," Poulos said.

In a few minutes, Pantazopoulos came running toward the plane, carrying a red bag on his shoulder. He entered the plane, gasping for breath. "Forgive me, minister," he said.

"It's all right, Dimitris. Get yourself settled so we can leave."

Four of us sat in the back, taking seats around the table. Nina first, on the left. I sat beside her. Maria Beglitis, an aide to the minister, sat across from me, with Pantazopoulos next to her on the left.

Kranidiotis took the front seat on the right, his son facing him.

Routine start

The flight was uneventful. "Fish or meat?" asked the stewardess at some point. We all ordered.

After dinner the minister took a break and came to the back. "I didn't forget you," he said. "I had to look over the files. I came back late yesterday from Brussels and met with [Glafkos Clerides, the president of Cyprus] this morning."

He sat on a small bench where newspapers were stacked up, just across from our table, and briefed us on plans for the Balkan foreign ministers' meeting. On the bench next to him sat a small monitor indicating the flight information. I noticed it registered the altitude at 23,000 feet.

Kranidiotis told us he would meet privately with Ismael Cem, the Turkish foreign minister, on the sidelines, as well as with the other foreign ministers during the conference. It must have been about 10 o'clock.

Turbulence

I remember only a loud noise -- a noise as if we were hit by something. The plane plunged. Suddenly, it stopped. It was as if someone stepped on a brake, and it felt as if we climbed a bit. Once, and then a second time. The cabin fell apart; pieces came off the ceiling and the walls -- lights and speakers ripped off the walls came crashing down.

A third time, abruptly -- I don't know for how long -- a jolting. I saw no one around me. My body was beating the seat. It was if someone were throwing me in the air with force. But I felt something holding me to my chair. I tightened my safety belt with my hand. I opened my eyes.

Directly across from me, I could see only Beglitis being hurled around in her seat.

"What is happening?" she asked in a strange way. The tone of her voice was calm.

"I don't know. I don't see anyone else," I answered.

New strong turbulence. "Minister," we called out. "Dimitris."

No answer.

"Niko," Beglitis said calmly, searching for Kranidiotis' police escort. "Niko, where are you?"

No response.

A short rest from the jolting.

"To see my children again. It's them I am thinking about," she said. She was the only person I could see in the cabin.

A few moments of calmness; the airplane was under control again.

The cabin looked as if a battle had been fought.

People tangled with objects and wreckage. Nina was not next to me.

"Is that Dimitris?" Beglitis asked.

"Unfortunately," she answered.

He had dropped, face down, on his seat, lying still.

We saw somebody's leg.

We refused to think. We simply looked at each other.

The minutes seemed like centuries. We had no communication with anyone. I turned to look toward the cockpit. At the other end, I was able to see the stewardess bleeding. I waved my hand. She gave me a reassuring nod and indicated to me to remain seated and calm.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.