A French court put Continental Airlines and five aviation officials on trial Tuesday for the horrific Air France Concorde crash that that killed 113 people and foreshadowed the end of the elegant, supersonic jet.
The trial in Pontoise, north of Paris, could last four months as the court debates responsibility for the July 25, 2000 crash of the jet, which plunged into a hotel minutes after takeoff from Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport, trailing a tail of flames.
Houston-headquartered Continental Airlines, Inc. and two of its U.S. employees are among those on trial for manslaughter. Investigators say the crash was triggered by a metal strip lying on the runway that had fallen from a Continental DC-10 minutes before.
Continental's lawyers will argue that the Concorde caught fire before it reached the debris and say the American company is just a convenient scapegoat.
Presiding judge Dominique Andreassier opened the proceedings Tuesday by reading out all the names of the victims. 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.
Most of Tuesday's hearing was devoted to setting dates for experts and witnesses to appear.
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.
Two others on trial for manslaughter were employed by Aerospatiale, the precursor of plane-maker Airbus, while the fifth is an employee of the French civilian aviation authority. Their lawyers say they were not to blame and argue the crash could not have been predicted.
Interest in the trial is so high that the courtroom has been expanded with makeshift walls. The trial is also being broadcast on a video screen in a separate courtroom, simultaneously translated into English and German.
As the trial opened, several lawyers said they had asked the court to call off the proceedings on a technicality. Olivier Metzner, the lawyer for Continental, and Daniel Soulez Lariviere, representing aviation official Claude Frantzen, said the document ordering the trial failed to provide counterweights to the accusations against their clients, as required.
The crash killed 109 people on the plane, mostly German tourists, and four people on the ground. Compensation is not a major issue in the trial since most of the victims' families received settlements long ago. Most have also remained silent and are not taking part in the proceedings, though family members of pilot Christian Marty are civil parties, with their lawyer saying they want answers.
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, which caused a fire.
Continental lawyer Metzner says he plans to present testimony from about 20 witnesses who say they spotted a small fire aboard the Concorde before it reached the metal strip. He says the Concorde had trouble spots in general and that particular plane was overloaded and took off missing a piece to stabilize its wheels.
Continental mechanic John Taylor, 41, is accused of violating guidelines by replacing the DC-10's wear strip with titanium instead of the softer metal usually called for, aluminum. Maintenance chief Stanley Ford, 70, is on trial for validating the strip's installation.
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 Frantzen, 72, who handled the Concorde program in various roles at the French civil aviation authority.
Manslaughter charges can carry penalties of up to five years in prison and a $104,000 (U.S.) fine, but observers say suspended prison sentences are more likely in this case.
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