An Air France Concorde jetliner en route to New York slammed into a hotel outside Paris today shortly after takeoff, killing all 109 people aboard and four more people on the ground.
The charter flight burst into flames on impact in the first-ever crash of the needle-nosed supersonic jet. The passengers, mostly German tourists, were headed to New York to catch a luxury cruise to South America.
Air France said there were 100 passengers aboard, including an American, and nine crew members. State Department sources identified the American as Christopher Behrens, an Air France retiree living in Germany. The passenger list also included 96 Germans, two Danes and an Austrian.
France’s LCI television on Wednesday identified those killed at the hotel as a British tourist, French woman and two Poles.
Charred Wreckage, Billowing Smoke
Chartered by a German tour company, Flight AF4590 was en route from Paris to New York when it went down in the town of Gonesse, hitting a 72-room hotel and a nearby restaurant. At least a dozen other people were injured on the ground, where the hotel and the restaurant were in flames, but in good condition, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin said.
Eight hours after the crash, thick billowing white smoke still rose some 100 feet into the air, and the smell of burning wreckage was perceptible from 700 yards away, where reporters and onlookers gathered behind French police officers. The wreckage left a swath of charred metal, singed trees and smoldering ruins.
There was no immediate word on what might have caused the crash of the jet, though experts say investigators would likely focus on engine trouble after seeing a photograph which appeared to show flames spewing from at least one of the engines. The plane had been in service since 1980 and had just had a mechanical checkup on Friday.
The aircraft’s so-called black boxes — the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder — were found at the scene, French officials told ABCNEWS. French Interior Ministry sources said sabotage was not suspected and Justice Ministry sources said anti-terrorism investigators would not be involved in the inquiry.
As a safety precaution, France’s transport minister called for the grounding of Air France’s five remaining Concordes. British Airways, which owns the other seven Concordes, canceled its two remaining Concorde flights scheduled for this evening.
‘A Desperate Situation’
The crash took place at 4:44 p.m. local time, shortly after the plane took off from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport.
Julian Pryke, a witness on the ground, said the plane was obviously in trouble before the crash.
“It was no more than 500 feet from the ground,” Pryke said. “From the right wing there was perhaps 20 to 30 feet of flames pouring back. The situation was desperate.”
Other witnesses said the jet was not able to gain sufficient altitude moments before the crash. French radio said the plane appeared to be trying to bank and turn back toward the airport when it flipped and landed on its back. An amateur photographer, a tourist from Hungary, captured the aircraft spewing flames seconds before it plunged to the earth.
Gregory Jerejean, the director of Golf de Gonesse, a golf course a little more than a half-mile from the crash site, said his clients were on the course when they saw the plane rising and then heard the sputtering of motors, as if the plane was stopping and starting.
“When the plane was about 1 kilometer (.6 mile) into the sky there was a huge flame and then the crash. We heard the boom from here,” he said.
‘A Sickening Sight’
A Federal Express pilot who witnessed the crash from 2 miles away said the Concorde pilot tried desperately to gain height and avoid the hotel. The plane’s nose went up, it rose to an almost vertical position, then began to roll over and came sliding back down and crashed into the hotel.
He said he saw smoke pouring from one of the plane’s two left engines. It was not after-burner flame, as is usual on a Concorde on takeoff.
“It was a sickening sight,” the FedEx pilot said.
Blake Kemper, an art and antiques dealer from Shaker Heights, Ohio, watched the doomed plane fly over Charles de Gaulle airport engulfed in flames.
The pilot appeared to be dumping fuel from the jet, Kemper said, which at first seemed to be preparing for an emergency landing on a runway.
“Then it looked like [the pilot] pulled it away from the airport,” he said. In its wake, the burning plane left a black cloud and the stench of smoldering fuel, Kemper said.
The crash site was not visible from the airport, so people there did not see the Concorde go down. But they realized it was in trouble. Silence fell over the airport, Kemper added, as people came outside to try to see what happened to the jet. “Everybody froze, everything stopped,” he said.
Passengers Met in Paris
The Concorde’s passengers were on their way to New York to meet up with about 400 others for a cruise to Florida, through the Gulf of Mexico, then sail through the Panama Canal to Ecuador in what was billed as a “Dream Ship Cruise.” The luxury cruise package costs up to $20,000 a head for the two-week trip.
An official at the Germany-based cruise company running the excursion, Peter Deilmann River & Ocean Cruises, said most of the passengers came from various German states and met in Paris to fly together for the cruise aboard the MS Deutschland, which was anchored today in New York.
At the dock in New York, the staff of the 2-year-old cruise ship expressed sympathy for the crash victims.
“We’re deeply saddened,” said Hayo Janssen, the ship captain. “Our deepest thoughts and regrets are with the families.”
The ship was scheduled to set sail as planned on Thursday.
In Washington, President Clinton said he “wanted to extend the deepest condolences of the American people to the families of those who are lost.”
The German Foreign Ministry has set up crisis management centers in both Berlin and Paris. The ministry said more information would be released when passengers’ names were confirmed.
ABCNEWS.com’s Lucrezia Cuen in Gonesse, Amy Collins, Willow Lawson, Ephrat Livni, Sue Masterman, Rose Palazzolo, Geraldine Sealey, Julia Campbell and The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.