Reporting from Paris — A French court on Monday found Continental Airlines and one of its mechanics guilty of manslaughter in the deaths of 113 people who perished in the crash of a New York-bound Air France Concorde jet 10 years ago, ruling that debris from a Continental plane caused the tragedy.
Continental and its mechanic improperly monitored and maintained aircraft, resulting in a piece of titanium falling from a plane onto a runway at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport a few minutes before the ill-fated Concorde took off July 25, 2000, said Judge Dominique Andreassier at a courthouse in Pontoise, northwest of Paris.
The court said it believed the roughly 16-inch piece of metal known as a wear strip punctured a tire on the Air France jet as it sped down the runway for takeoff, and that debris perforated the jet's low-lying fuel tank, causing a leak and a fire. One minute and 51 seconds after takeoff, the jet crashed into a hotel in Gonesse, north of Paris, killing 100 passengers, nine crew members and four people on the ground.
The court ordered Continental to pay the bulk of hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages to Air France, relatives of victims and others involved in the case. Continental also was fined about $265,000 for "manslaughter by a legal entity and unintentional injuries." Mechanic John Taylor, who lives in Texas, was fined $2,650 and ordered to serve a 15-month suspended prison sentence. Continental and Taylor are expected to appeal the ruling.
Three French engineers who headed the manufacturing portion of the supersonic Concorde, including Henri Perrier, 81, the so-called father of the Concorde, were cleared of all charges, while their employer, EADS-France, was held civilly liable and ordered to pay 30% of about $250,000 in damages to victims, a lawyer for the company said.
The trial mainly focused on establishing responsibility for the crash, as most relatives of victims were previously compensated by Air France and Continental.
The accident led to the shutting down of commercial aviation's fastest jet. Carriers Air France and British Airways retired the Concorde in 2003.
Continental lawyer Olivier Metzner scoffed at the ruling as an example of "privileging purely national interests" out of "French patriotism," and said it was "incomprehensible to put everything on the Americans' shoulders."
Metzner has maintained that the Concorde flight caught fire before rolling over the wear strip, a theory he tried to prove with the testimony of several witnesses, which the court found "not sufficient."
Throughout months of deliberations, incidents of Concorde tires bursting in 1979 and a serious fire risk due to fuel leakage in 1993 were presented as evidence that the plane's manufacturers were also partly or entirely to blame for the 2000 accident.
But in Monday's decision, the court determined manufacturer EADS-France's responsibility "does not qualify as serious misconduct," referring to it as a less serious offense of negligence.
Roland Rappaport, a lawyer for the family of Concorde pilot Christian Marty and a pilots union, said the ruling unfairly cleared French parties of their role.
"I don't understand the difference of treatment between the American transporter and those who were involved on the French side, who had the responsibility of maintaining navigability, and where the problem [of weaknesses in the Concorde] was known for some 20 years and these problems weren't completely treated," he said.
According to EADS lawyer Simon Ndiaye, the court agreed that past Concorde cases of burst tires and fuel leaks were not connected to the 2000 crash, and as a result, judges should have more fully absolved the French manufacturer in the case. The company may appeal the ruling, he said.
Stephane Gicquel, the head of an association for victims of crashes, said "we can't deny today that this plane was fragile," adding that he understood that "it is intellectually unsatisfactory to say that a metal strip of 40 centimeters can bring one of the jewels of technology to the ground."
Gicquel said it was logical for Continental Airlines to be blamed for the crash.
"That doesn't mean that there's no fault on the French side," he said. "We hope this judgment means that everyone will take their responsibility."
Lauter is a special correspondent.