A decade after a supersonic Concorde jet crashed in a fiery wreck outside Paris soon after takeoff, killing 113 people, a French court will rule at last Monday on who, if anyone, is to blame.
The trial that started in February in Pontoise, northwest of Paris, reopened old questions over whether European engineers — or an American company, Continental Airlines — was responsible for the July 2000 crash of the European jet that symbolized elegance in trans-Atlantic air travel.
The verdict is expected Monday morning.
In the years it took French judicial investigators to work their way to trial, amassing 80,000 pages of court documents, the Concordes were revamped, retired and finally sent to museums.
But victims' families will be watching the verdict closely, along with aviation experts. Some in the industry fear the high-profile trial will discourage aviation officials from freely sharing safety information, fearing what they disclose might one day be used to prosecute them.
French judicial and aviation investigators concluded long ago that a Continental Airlines DC-10 dropped titanium debris onto the runway at Charles de Gaulle airport before the Air France Concorde took off — a metal strip that gashed the supersonic jet's tire and sent rubber pieces flying into the fuel tanks, causing a fire.
Continental contested that chain of events in court, calling up witnesses who testified the fire broke out before the plane reached the runway debris.
Continental lawyer Olivier Metzner argued that the U.S. airline was merely a convenient scapegoat. Houston-based Continental Airlines, Inc. and two of its U.S. employees are on trial for manslaughter.
Three former French officials also face the same charge; judicial investigators say they had long failed to fix the Concorde's weak spots.
Continental is now part of Chicago-based United Continental Holdings Inc., which was formed in October as the holding company owner of United and Continental airlines, which will eventually be combined into a single airline.
While France's aviation authority concluded the Concorde crash could not have been predicted, a judicial inquiry determined that the plane's fuel tanks lacked sufficient protection from shock and said officials had known about the problem since 1979.
On July 25, 2000, the Air France Concorde plunged into a hotel outside Paris soon after takeoff, killing all 109 people aboard and four on the ground. Those aboard were mostly German tourists.
The families of most victims were compensated years ago, and settling financial claims is not the main focus of the trial — assigning blame is.
FENVAC, a French association that represents victims of accidents and is a civil party in the case, says the court owes it to those who died to determine the truth.
During the trial, it has been "striking and shocking to see how the defendants were determined to avoid or play down any responsibility, citing probabilities, nuances of terminology, failing memory, obscure rules and other means of artifice," the group said in a statement Friday.
In France, unlike in many other countries, plane crashes routinely lead to trials to assign criminal responsibility. It is common for cases to drag on for years.
In 2009, France's highest court finally confirmed the acquittal of all those originally accused of responsibility in an Air Inter crash that killed 87 people in 1992 — 17 years earlier.
A prosecutor asked the court to fine Continental euro175,000 ($231,000) and requested 18-month suspended prison sentences for two American employees of Continental, mechanic John Taylor and his now-retired supervisor Stanley Ford.
The prosecution requested a two-year suspended sentence for Henri Perrier, former head of the Concorde program at plane maker Aerospatiale, and argued for acquitting French engineer Jacques Herubel and Claude Frantzen, former chief of France's civil aviation authority.
Lawyers for the three French officials argued 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, but observers say suspended prison sentences would be more likely in this case.
Source: AP News