Concorde trial begins in France

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Nearly 10 years ago, an Air France Concorde jet bound for New York crashed just after takeoff from Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris. The Concorde, the world’s first commercial jet designed to fly at supersonic speeds, failed to gain altitude or sufficient speed. It plummeted into a hotel, killing all 109 people aboard and four on the ground.

In a trial that began Tuesday, a French court is to decide who was responsible for the July 25, 2000, crash of Flight 4590. The trial is expected to last until the end of May.

Air France and British Airways, both of which flew the Concorde, retired the aircraft in 2003.

What happened?A fuel tank under the left wing caught fire as the supersonic carrier left the Paris airport. French investigating judges and prosecutors say the fire was caused by a piece of metal, called a wear strip, that fell off a Continental Airlines DC-10. They say the piece of metal burst one of the Concorde’s tires, throwing debris into the wing and fuel tank that caused a leak and sparked the fire. They also argue that the exterior of the fuel tank was not sufficiently resistant to the impact, and that Concorde technicians were aware of the problem because of previous burst tires and fuel leaks caused by flying debris. Continental Airlines lawyer Olivier Metzner will argue that the plane caught fire before it hit what he describes as a “minor” metal strip. He says the American company has served as an easy scapegoat. Lawyers for the Concorde program are expected to argue that a fuel tank explosion could not have been foreseen. Who’s on trial?Six defendants are accused of involuntary manslaughter and causing injury due to carelessness and negligence. They include two Continental employees involved in installing the metal strip on the DC-10, two officials of the firm that manufactured the Concorde, an official of the French civil aviation authority who oversaw Concorde flights, and Continental airlines itself. What’s the possible penalty?Continental Airlines could face a fine of 375,000 euros, or about $524,000. The accused individuals could face five years’ imprisonment and a fine of 75,000 euros, or about $105,000. The families of the passengers, mostly German, have already been paid compensation by Air France. Family members of the four victims on the ground and of one of the pilots as well as Air France have been added as civil plaintiffs to the criminal case. -- Devorah Lauter