Metal Part Maybe Came From Continental Jet

Sept. 4, 2000 -- French investigators today said a stray metal piece that gashed a tire of a supersonic Concorde in July — causing a fire in the fuel tank and dooming the flight — apparently came from a Continental Airlines DC-10.

The Continental jet took off from the same runway just minutes before the Concorde, which caught fire and crashed into a hotel, killing 113 people, said France’s Accident and Inquiry Office.

The plane, inspected on Saturday in Houston, had a missing part “which appeared to be identical to the metal piece found on the runway after the July 25, accident,” read a statement from the office, known by the French acronym, BEA.

Part Missing Near Plane’s Door

The BEA’s preliminary report on the accident, made public Thursday, showed a picture of a bent metal piece 16 inches long, similar to a part later found to be missing from a space between a fan and a door on the right-wing engine of the Continental DC-10.

The BEA statement described the found metal piece as part of a hood on a thrust reverser.

It was not immediately confirmed that the two pieces are the same. But Jane’s aviation security editor Chris Yates said that two types of parts could be confused with each other.

BEA spokeswoman Helene Bastianelli said that it was “probably” the same part.

Incidents of debris falling off aircrafts, said Yates, while not common, do happen with an alarming regularity. “That’s the whole purpose of runway inspections,” he said.

French investigators earlier said a routine inspection of the runway from which the Concorde took off had been delayed. Paul-Louis Arslanian, head of the Air Accident Investigation Bureau (BEA), told a news conference Friday that there was a fire drill on the runway and the inspection was postponed due to personnel shortages.

However, it is unclear if the routine inspection, which was scheduled for 3 p.m., would have altered the chain of events on July 25, since the Continental flight took off mere minutes before the Concorde.

That would eliminate pointing a finger at airport officials for having postponed the cleaning to allow for a fire drill on the runway. The postponed cleanup was briefly mentioned in the 75-page preliminary report.

It was not immediately known whether there might be any legal implications for Continental. The airline noted that “it has not been determined definitively” that the missing part on its aircraft was the piece found on the runway.

Early Suspicions

Investigators have all along speculated that the part came from another airplane. The picture shows a bent part, reddish on one side and greenish on the other, with rivet holes.

The BEA was convinced early on that the metal part destroyed a left forward tire. Huge chunks of rubber were then thrust at high velocity toward the fuel tanks in the Concorde’s delta-shaped wings, causing a fuel leak and a huge fire.

The flight, filled with German tourists, dived into a small hotel, less than two minutes after takeoff. It was the first accident by the supersonic Concorde since it entered commercial service 24 years ago.

Concorde Could Be Airborne Again

Meanwhile, Air France Chief Executive Officer Pierre-Henri Gourgeon raised the possibility that the Concorde could be airborne again by May 2001. It was the first time any date has been given since France and Britain officially grounded their fleets in August.

“There are many uncertainties and May would seem to be the earliest possible date,” he told reporters. “Experts haven’t yet made their recommendations,” so costs to modify the aircraft are not known, he added.

French Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot has said the plane will not be certified as airworthy until investigators can unlock the “catastrophic chain of events” that led to the crash.

The only two existing Concorde fleets — in France and Britain — were both officially grounded in August until further notice.

The Concorde, which flies across the Atlantic at Mach 2, twice the speed of sound, has been the most sophisticated form of commercial transatlantic air travel.

ABCNEWS' Leela Jacinto and The Associated Press contributed to this report.