Page last updated at 17:54 GMT, Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Concorde crash manslaughter trial begins in France

Air France Concorde trails fire from its engine shortly before crashing - 25 July 2000
The crash outside Paris was the only one for a Concorde

Continental Airlines and five individuals have gone on trial for manslaughter in France over the crash of an Air France Concorde in July 2000.

The jet took off in flames from Paris Charles de Gaulle airport and crashed shortly afterwards, killing 113 people.

An official report said the plane had hit a metal strip from a Continental jet that had taken off earlier.

The presiding judge began the proceedings by reading out the names of all those who died.

Matt Cole
By Matt Cole, BBC News, Pontoise

Presiding judge Dominique Andreassier read out the names, alphabetically, of all 113 people who died in the crash. She apologised in case she had pronounced any of them wrong.

The gentleness of her tone was quite different from moments before, when she had seemed impatient as the large throng of photographers and camera crews took a long time to leave so the hearing could get under way.

The modern courtroom, with dark wooden panels, a high ceiling and large glass windows, was packed. Many of the seats were taken up by the large numbers of lawyers there to represent the accused, the victims' families and other interested parties such as Concorde operator Air France.

Ms Andreassier told the court that this trial wanted to "shed light on the tragedy".

She said that throughout the four months this case would take, she and her fellow judges would always be thinking of the 113 people who died.

Dominique Andreassier then read out the charges against US airline Continental, two of its technical staff, two former Concorde engineers and a former French civil aviation official.

They are accused of the manslaughter of 109 people on the plane and four people on the ground. They all deny the charges.

The trial in Pontoise, west of Paris, is expected to last four months and cost more than 3m euros ($4.2m).

The first day of hearings was mostly taken up with procedural matters involved in organising a trial that will hear testimony from scores of witnesses and experts, and will examine 90 volumes of case files and 534 pieces of evidence.

The court will examine conflicting explanations of why the New York-bound jet crashed just after taking off on 25 July, 2000.

Investigators and technical experts say the crash was caused by a strip of titanium that fell from a Continental jet which took off shortly before the Concorde.

But the French aviation official and Concorde engineers are also accused of failing to correct faults on the supersonic jet.

Continental's lawyers say they can prove the Concorde caught fire before it struck the titanium strip.

Continental Airlines
John Taylor, Continental mechanic
Stanley Ford, Continental maintenance official
Jacques Herubel, former Concorde chief engineer
Henri Perrier, former head of Concorde division at Aerospatiale
Claude Frantzen, former member of French civil aviation watchdog

The stricken Concorde flight 4590 crashed in the town of Gonesse, hitting a hotel.

Most of the passengers were German tourists heading to New York to join a luxury cruise to the Caribbean. Nine French crew members and four hotel workers also died.

The entire fleet of Concordes was grounded until an inquiry established that one of the plane's tyres had burst, causing rubber debris to shoot out and rupture a fuel tank.

Leaking kerosene then ignited and caused the catastrophe.

After nearly a year and a half out of service, in November 2001, the jets took to the air once more with new reinforced fuel tanks, but inquiries continued.

In December 2004, a judicial investigation concluded that a piece of metal left on the runway by another aircraft had caused one of Concorde's tyres to burst and shred.

Investigators said the 43cm (17in) titanium strip had fallen from the engine casing of a Continental Airlines DC-10, and in March 2008 a French public prosecutor asked judges to bring manslaughter charges.

Captain Brian Walpole

1962: Separate French and British projects join forces

1967: Prototype rolled out in Toulouse

1 October 1969: First supersonic flight

21 January 1976: First commercial flight

26 November 2003: Fleet retires
Range: 4,300 miles (6,880km)

Top speed: Mach 2 (1,335mph; 2,150km/h)
Fastest crossing from Europe to New York: Two hours 52 minutes and 59 seconds

Houston-based Continental Airlines is denying responsibility, as are John Taylor, the Continental mechanic who allegedly fitted the metal strip to the DC-10, and Stanley Ford, a maintenance official from the airline.

Also facing charges that they deny are Concorde's former chief engineer Jacques Herubel; Henri Perrier, a former head of the Concorde division at Aerospatiale - now part of the aerospace company EADS; and Claude Frantzen, a former member of France's civil aviation watchdog.

Manslaughter charges can carry penalties of up to five years in prison and a 75,000-euro ($104,000) fine - but correspondents say that in the event of guilty verdicts, suspended prison sentences are more likely in this case.

Only some of the victims' families will be represented at the hearings, as most took compensation from Air France after the crash in return for not taking legal action.

Stephane Gicquel of Fenvac, a French federation representing the interests of the families of crew members, said relatives would watch the trial with great interest.

"This tragedy is part of their personal history and of their family history," Mr Gicquel told the BBC.

The disaster was the only crash ever to involve a Concorde supersonic airliner.

Air France and British Airways retired their Concorde fleets in 2003.

Crash map graphic

1. 1643 local time: Smoke seen as Air France Concorde 4590 takes off

2. Control tower tells pilot large flames coming from tail end

3. A mile from airport, pilot tries to gain altitude

4. Three miles from airport, Concorde starts to roll and fall

5. 1644 local time: Concorde crashes killing 109 on board and four on ground

Source: Bureau Enquêtes-Accidents

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