Almost 10 years after the fatal crash of the Air France Concorde that killed 113 people near Paris, a court in Pontoise, France, will begin debate today on who, if anyone, should be held criminally responsible
Many questions remain about the causes of the July 2000 crash of the Air France jet, which plunged into a hotel minutes after taking off from Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport. The crash killed 100 passengers -- mostly German tourists -- nine crew members and four people on the ground.
Over the next four months, the trial promises a court clash between two theories that aim to explain the accident.
After an eight-year investigation, a French judicial inquiry concluded that a piece of titanium, about 16 inches long, that fell off a Continental Airlines DC10 aircraft moments before the Concorde's takeoff is the primary cause of the accident.
According to the French judicial investigation, the Concorde rolled over the scrap of metal, bursting one of the tires on the left side of the aircraft. Tire debris and the pressure released by the tire burst then punctured one of the fuel tanks causing a fierce fire and the loss of the Concorde two minutes after takeoff, the investigation concluded.
Continental and two of its employees, along with three other aviation officials, are on trial for involuntary manslaughter. The officials face five years in prison and a 75,000 euro ($104,000) fine if convicted, and Continental Airlines faces a fine of 375,000 euros ($523,000).
Lawyers for Continental are expected to argue that a fire broke out on the Concorde eight seconds before it even reached the titanium strip.
"Twenty-five witnesses saw the Concorde catch fire before it struck the metal strip from the Continental Airlines DC10. This is simply that, the truth," Continental lawyer Oliver Metzner told reporters outside the courtroom today. The Concorde crash represented a shock for a nation proud of its aviation history and the joint production, in partnership with the British government, of the iconic supersonic jet that could fly across the Atlantic in half the time of other planes.
"It was an aircraft one could recognize at first glance. There has not been any other civilian aircrafts like this one," Gerard Feldzer, a former Air France captain and head of the Air and Space Museum at Le Bourget outside Paris, told ABC News. "It was the flagship of an embryonic European technology."
Continental Lawyers Blame Concorde for Crash
Continental lawyers will present to the court their own reconstitution of the accident at the end of the month, drawing on the testimonies of about 20 witnesses.
Continental claims the tire blew up because of a bump on the runway and above all, the doomed Concorde was in no condition to fly on that day because it was overloaded and was missing a piece that stabilizes its wheels.
Air France, the operator of the Concorde flight, confirmed this piece was missing. But after conducting a series of tests, investigators concluded that neither the missing piece nor the extra weight were factors in the crash.
Continental Airlines mechanic John Taylor, 41, is accused of manslaughter for installing the titanium strip without respecting guidelines. Continental maintenance chief Stanley Ford, 70, is also on trial for validating the strip's installation and signing the authorization to put the aircraft back in service. Both Taylor and Ford were reportedly not in court today.
The three other men accused of manslaughter are Henri Perrier, 80, the chief of the Concorde program at plane maker Aerospatiale from 1978 to 1994; Jacques Herubel, 74, a top Aerospatiale engineer at Concorde from 1993 to 95; and Claude Frantzen, 72, who handled the Concorde program in various roles at the French civil aviation authority DGAC. The the Frenchmen are on trial for having underestimated previous incidents involving Concorde.
The French judicial inquiry determined that the plane's fuel tanks lacked sufficient protection from shock, and that Concorde's makers had been aware of the problem since 1979.
In June of that year, while taking off from Washington, two tires on the left hand main gear blew up, sending debris into the air, damaging the wing and causing a fuel and hydraulic leak. Miraculously, the aircraft was able to land safely back in Washington.
Most Crash Victims' Families Not Present in Court
Over the years, several other incidents involving the supersonic tires were reported, some of them resulting in structural damages. A few of these incidents even led to holes in the fuel tanks.
A battle of experts is thus expected to take place during the trial, and about 60 witnesses are scheduled to take the stand.
Most victims' families have received financial settlements, reportedly 153 million euros ($213 million) in total, and signed a confidentiality clause, and are not expected to be in court.
Though investigators noticed maintenance issues, Air France is not accused of any wrongdoing. The French carrier has joined the case as civil plaintiff: it considers itself a victim because of expenses stemming from the accident and damage to its image. The company hopes to obtain damages from Continental.
Other civil plaintiffs include families of victims on the ground who never received any compensation.
Concorde jets were retired by both Air France and British Airways in 2003. The jets are now on display in museums around the world.
The Associated Press contributed to the reporting of this story.