French Court Probes Blame for 2000 Concorde Crash That Killed 113

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A long-awaited trial in the fiery crash of an Air France supersonic Concorde opened Tuesday, but lawyers for Continental Airlines — accused of responsibility in the accident that killed 113 people — urged the court to drop the proceedings.

Houston-headquarted Continental Airlines, Inc., two of its employees and three French aviation officials are accused of manslaughter in the case.

The court in Pontoise, north of Paris, must weigh who is responsible for the July 25, 2000 crash. The Concorde plunged into a hotel minutes after takeoff from Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport, trailing flames and foreshadowing the end of the aircraft that embodied trans-Atlantic elegance.

Investigators say the crash was triggered by a metal strip on the runway that had fallen from a Continental DC-10 minutes beforehand, a claim the U.S. carrier rejects, saying investigators had failed to probe another lead.

Presiding judge Dominique Andreassier opened proceedings by reading out the victims' names — 109 on the plane and four on the ground. She described the investigation as "difficult and technical," defending the lengthy probe that has produced 80,000 pages worth of information for the court.

Cases of this complexity often take years to come to trial in France.

Continental lawyer Olivier Metzner and attorneys for several other defendants urged the court to call off the proceedings, expected to last four months. It would be extremely unusual for the court to grant their request when the trial resumes Wednesday.

Metzner argued that successive investigations leading to the trial were flawed: He said officials failed to acknowledge the accounts of 23 witnesses — including firefighters and pilots who saw the Concorde take off — and who sighted fire on the jet eight seconds before it even reached the metal strip on the runway.

He also said the trial was unjust because Continental didn't have access to basic information needed to defend itself, such as copies of information from the Concorde's black boxes.

Metzner and other lawyers asked that the trial be dropped based on a technicality, saying the document ordering the proceedings did not provide counterweights to accusations against their clients, as required by law.

The Continental lawyer said that starting over and drawing up a new trial order would be "a favor for the victims, so they know the truth about who was responsible for all this."

In the years after the Concorde crashed, both French aviation and judicial investigators concluded that the Continental DC-10's metal piece — known as a wear strip — gashed the Concorde's tire, sending pieces of rubber into the fuel tanks, and sparking a fire.

The prosecution also accuses French officials of neglecting to fix known design weaknesses in the jet. The Concorde, capable of flying at twice the speed of sound, was the pride of commercial aviation — though never a financial success — before both Air France and British Airways retired it in 2003.

Compensation is not a major issue in the trial since most victims' families received settlements long ago. Most are not taking part in the proceedings, though family members of pilot Christian Marty are civil parties, hoping for answers.

Their lawyer, Roland Rappaport, said the request to call off the trial was "totally scandalous." But he was skeptical about the claim that Continental's metal strip was to blame.

"It is unimaginable that all it takes is a burst tire to crash an airplane," he said.

Continental mechanic John Taylor, 41, is accused of violating guidelines by replacing the DC-10's wear strip with titanium instead of a softer metal usually called for, such as aluminum. Retired maintenance chief Stanley Ford, 70, is on trial for validating the strip's installation.

Neither was present in court. Continental was represented by Ken Burtt, vice president of technical services.

French aviation investigators deemed the chain of events that led to the crash unpredictable. But a French judicial inquiry determined that the plane's fuel tanks lacked sufficient protection from shock, and that officials had been aware of the problem since a series of incidents in 1979.

The three other men accused of manslaughter in the case are Henri Perrier, 80, ex-chief of the Concorde program at plane maker Aerospatiale from 1978 to 1994; Jacques Herubel, 74, a top Aerospatiale engineer at Concorde from 1993-95; and Claude Frantzen, 72, who handled the Concorde program in various roles at the French civil aviation authority.

Their lawyers say they were not to blame and say the crash could not have been foreseen.

Manslaughter charges can carry penalties of up to five years in prison and a euro75,000 ($104,000) fine, but observers say suspended prison sentences would be more likely in this case.