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Tuesday, 24 July, 2001, 21:11 GMT 22:11 UK
First on the scene: Concorde remembered
Concorde crash scene
The field was a scattered with pieces of aircraft
By Hugh Schofield in Paris

It was by a weird journalistic twist of fate that I found myself the first - indeed the only - reporter on the scene of the Concorde crash a year ago.

Having leapt in a taxi at the first news of the disaster, I told the driver to head to Charles de Gaulle airport.

It was only when we drew near that it became clear the crash site was at Gonesse, a good three miles to our left, and we should have taken another road out of Paris.

Concorde crash cite
The wreckage was still smouldering
So instead of approaching the wreckage from the south - as everyone else did, only to be kept back by a cordon - I left the taxi and came at a fast jog through fields from the north.

For some reason I was wearing a suit and it is a useful tip, because the one policeman I saw simply waved me through.

Had I looked more obviously from the press, I would have been stopped.

Burning fiercely

And quite suddenly, I was in the thick of one of the most spectacular disasters in aviation history.

Grey smoke blew across a ploughed field.

To my right, at the point of impact, the remains of the Hotelissimo hotel were still burning fiercely.

And scattered before me were pieces of aircraft - some recognisable, such as a piece of fuselage with half an Air France logo, others just chunks of metal.

Some emergency workers were laying out orange traffic bollards - there were several dozen of them distributed randomly around the field.

Bodies marked out

Initially I supposed they must signify some way of dividing up the site for the subsequent investigation.

What crashed at Gonesse was also a beautiful dream

Liberation newspaper

But then I spotted the amorphous bundles beside each one.

The odd thing was that apart from the bollards, they provided the only spots of colour in that satanic landscape.

Among the ash, the smoke and the charred debris, these were the clothes of the dead.

Symbol of prowess

Later, the enormity of what had happened began to sink in.

Any crash is terrible - but this was Concorde - the very symbol of technological prowess.

For 25 years its strange beauty, that marriage of power and aesthetics, had made us pause and wonder, as the slender silhouette rumbled into the sky.

Economically it may have made no sense - only a handful of the very rich could ever afford to fly it - but we all felt the same thrill, and the same unquestioning confidence in its performance.

Now suddenly it was a plane like any other. As the French newspaper Liberation put it: "What crashed at Gonesse was also a beautiful dream."

Dream revived

A year on, contrary to what many feared at the time, the dream is being revived.

It has been established beyond doubt what caused the accident and the necessary improvements are being made on the 12 remaining Concordes to ensure it does not happen again.

Concorde taking off
Concorde is due to fly again in the autumn

It was, it turns out, no more than a 16-inch piece of metal on the runway that set off the drastic chain of cause and effect.

It burst a tyre, which sent debris against a fuel-tank, which set off a shock-wave in the fuel, which blew a hole in the casing, which sent out a gush of kerosene, which caught fire, which damaged the port-side engines, which shut down - and the plane careered out of control.

Now the tanks are being reinforced with Kevlar, electric cabling in the wheel assemblies is being armour-plated, and new tougher tyres are being fitted.

Both British Airways (BA) and Air France plan to resume flights after the summer.

Scarred ground

Flying over Gonesse, passengers on the first Concorde out of Paris will be able to look down on the scarred ground where the wreckage lay a year ago.

Now it is barren earth, and a patch of asphalt where the hotel stood, all surrounded by a wall of white metal sheeting.

Access has been forbidden for the duration of the judicial enquiry, and in any case the ground is still contaminated with fuel.

But on Wednesday, for the first time since the disaster, relatives who had gathered in Paris for a service to mark the first anniversary of the crash were able to visit the site.

The BBC's Andrew Burroughs
"The message is that they are on target for an end-of-summer relaunch"

Return to the skies?

The investigation

The crash





See also:

23 Jul 01 | UK
Autumn return for Concorde
13 May 01 | Europe
Relatives accept Concorde cash
23 Jul 01 | Talking Point
Can Concorde regain its status?
25 Jul 01 | Europe
Relatives remember Concorde crash
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