CERGY-PONTOISE, France – French prosecutors summoned Continental Airlines' (search) CEO and its chief operating officer for questioning in the investigation of the July 2000 crash of the supersonic Concorde (search), two lawyers said Tuesday.
The decision to question Gordon Bethune (search), who is also chairman, and Larry Kellner (search) came after a panel of experts concluded that a "wear strip" that fell from a Continental plane had a direct role in the accident. Three technicians for Continental also are to be questioned.
However, the experts' report also points out a critical defect in the Concorde that had been ignored.
The airline exploded in flames two minutes after takeoff from Charles de Gaulle airport on July 25, 2000, and slammed into a hotel, killing all 109 people on board and four on the ground. The crash also spelled an end to the career of the sleek but costly supersonic aircraft.
A spokesman for Continental, based in Houston, said the airline does not believe it had responsibility in causing the crash.
"As we previously stated, we strongly disagree that anything Continental did was the cause of the Concorde accident," said London-based spokesman Nick Britton, reading a statement by telephone.
"We're confident that there's no basis for criminal action and we will defend any charges in the appropriate courts," he said, adding that the airline had received no "communications from the court."
The prosecutors office in Pontoise, the region covering Gonesse, north of Paris where the accident occurred, opened an investigation for manslaughter after the crash. Those questioned in the case risk eventually being placed under investigation — a step short of being charged — by Judge Christophe Regnard, who is heading the probe. However, they could simply be dismissed after answering questions.
Pontoise Prosecutor Xavier Salvat made public what was labeled the "definitive report" on the crash by a panel of three experts.
The experts concluded that a titanium strip that fell off a Continental Airlines DC-10 that had used the runway barely four minutes ahead of the Concorde was a main cause of the fiery crash.
Lawyers Jerome Boursican and Roland Rappaport said the two Continental executives were called to appear before Judge Regnard on March 8 and 10, Three technicians for the airline were summoned for questioning Feb. 16 and 18, the lawyers said.
Boursican represents the pilots union Alter and Rapoport represents the family of the Concorde pilot, Christian Marty, who was among the victims.
"We have a clear report that clearly envisages responsibilities" in the crash, Rappaport said.
Prosecutors acknowledged that Continental officials had been called, though they did not specify which ones.
The conclusion of the report by judicial officials was similar to that reached by accident investigators three years ago, with the "wear strip" that fell from a Continental plane considered the chief culprit.
Both reports found that the metal bar caused a Concorde tire to burst, propelling rubber debris into the supersonic plane's fuel tanks.
The prosecutors argued that Continental had violated U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (search) rules by using titanium in a part of the plane that normally called for use of aluminum. Titanium, which is far harder than aluminum, made the accident more likely, they argued.
"Technical assessments have shown a direct causal link between the rupture of the No. 2 wheel's tire on the left side when it passed over the metal strip made of titanium alloy," prosecutors in the suburb of Cergy-Pontoise said in a statement.
An investigation nearly three years ago by France's Accident Investigations Bureau had cited the cause of the crash as the "wear strip" that fell off the Continental jet's engine housing during take off on the same runway that the Concorde used minutes later.
However, Tuesday's report also cited weaknesses in "the training and preparation of the Concorde teams," and insufficient protection of the supersonic jet's tanks.
Experts pointed to 67 cases of tire or wheel ruptures which in 24 cases "provoked one or more impacts on the structure," the report said. It added that in seven of the incidents "the fuel tanks were pierced with one or more holes."
"According to the experts, the number and seriousness of damages caused by bursting tires of the Concorde's main landing gear to the engines as well as the structure are beyond the norm in the 24 years of the aircraft's use," the prosecutor's statement said.