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France Concorde crash trial opens
Five officials face manslaughter charges over deaths of 113 people in July 2000 crash.
Last Modified: 02 Feb 2010 19:34 GMT

French investigators said debris from the plane's tyres flew into the engine and sparked a fire [AFP]
 

A French court has begun hearing a criminal case over the deadly crash of an Air France Concorde near Paris almost 10 years ago.

Five French and American officials, as well as the US-based airline Continental, are facing charges of involuntary manslaughter over the deaths of more than 100 people in the crash in the town of Gonesse.

Dominique Andreassier, the presiding judge, described the investigation as "difficult and technical" as the trial opened on Tuesday in Pontoise, northern France.

The first day of hearings was largely taken up with procedural matters in a trial that will hear testimony from dozens of witnesses and experts, and see 80,000 pages worth of information examined.

If found guilty, Continental faces the prospect of having to pay multi-million-euro fines, while the five officials would face five-year jail terms and a $105,000 fine.

Emma Hayward, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Paris, said the trial was getting a lot of attention, not only in France.

"Media from all around the world has come to cover this trial. It's getting a lot of attention and France has been prepared for that. They've specially converted a court, they've spent something like $750,000 doing that.

"The case will be translated into French, English and German. They've made a special room to help the victim's families if they need counselling, all because this trial is so very important."

Supersonic airliner

The supersonic aircraft crashed near Charles de Gaulle airport north of Paris on July 25, 2000, killing 113 including four people on the ground.

The chartered airliner with 109 mostly German passengers on board had just set off on a flight to New York when the pilot reported engine problems and tried to direct it towards the nearby Le Bourget airfield.

He never made it and the plane fell from the sky as it lost power, crashing into a hotel.

More than hundred people, including four on the ground, died in the crash [EPA]
In a 2004 inquiry, French aviation and judicial investigators concluded that a piece of titanium known as a "wear strip" from a Continental DC-10 had fallen on the runway and gashed the Concorde's tyre during take-off, sending pieces of rubber into the aircraft's fuel tanks which caused a fire.

But for the first time, lawyers acting for Continental are set to argue in court that the strip of metal was not to blame.

Olivier Metzner, a lawyer for the Houston-based airline, said he would demonstrate that the fire in the Concorde's engines began before the supersonic jet ran over the debris.

He said the supersonic jet was generally fragile and that the particular Concorde was in no condition to fly that day because it was overloaded and lacked a piece to stabilise its wheels.

"We shall demonstrate at the hearing that this is not the case, that the fire that caused the crash preceded the meeting of Concorde and this bit of metal which you find so many of on the runways of airports," Metzner told Reuters.

'Final humiliation'

Our correspondent said Concorde's safety record will be under scrutiny in the trial.

"We heard that Concorde had blow-outs before this incident, so questions will be asked about why nothing was done to protect the aircraft," she said.

"It was aviation's dream, getting from London and Paris to America in hours."

Emma Hayward,
Al Jazeera correspondent

"Many people feel this is the final humiliation for Concorde. It was aviation's dream, getting from London and Paris to America in hours. It was the only commercial supersonic jet that we've ever had.

"But after the accident, confidence in the aircraft never really recovered."

The airliner, which first entered commercial service in 1976, was officially retired in 2003 after a brief return to service following the crash.

Lawyers for EADS, the successor of Aerospatiale which built Concorde, say the crash was unrelated to design flaws.

"What happened in Gonesse has nothing to do with what happened beforehand," said Christian Buffat, whose firm represents EADS.

Lacking protection

Central to the debate will be whether Concorde's engineers and the French civil aviation authority were aware of a vulnerability in Concorde's fuel tanks long before the crash.

The French judicial inquiry determined that the plane's fuel tanks lacked sufficient protection from shock, and that Concorde's makers had been alerted to the problem as far back as 1979.

Ronald Schmid, a leading German crash expert, told the Reuters news agency that investigations had shown at least 10 other incidents with a burst tyre damaging the wings.

"It [the trial] will revolve around the question [of] who knew what and who - despite knowing something - did not act and whether that person could therefore be prosecuted," he said.

"So I do think that the authorities as well as Air France management had good reasons, very good reasons, to check whether or not the Concorde aircraft was at that time a safe aircraft."

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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