French Verdict in Concorde Crash Draws Outcry

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Andreas Kisgergely / Reuters

The Concorde, seconds before it crashed in Gonesse, near Charles de Gaulle Airport, on July 25, 2000

Ten years after a Concorde plane crashed near Paris and killed 113 people — a tragedy that led to the supersonic airliner's being grounded for good in 2003 — a French court has ruled that U.S. airline Continental was "criminally responsible" for the fiery disaster. The verdict has left few parties happy — indeed, given the court's decision to clear three French defendants of any legal fault in the case, Continental's lawyer, Olivier Metzner, denounced the ruling as one "that protects French interests exclusively" and said he would file an appeal.

On Monday morning, a criminal court in the Paris suburb of Pontoise ruled that Continental was responsible for the July 25, 2000, crash, because a strip of metal that had fallen off one of Continental's airplanes was found to have started the chain of events that led to the calamity. Experts say that as the Concorde sped toward takeoff from Charles de Gaulle Airport that day, its tires hit a titanium bar lying on the runway and exploded — causing chunks of flying rubber to pierce the airliner's fuel tanks. The leaking kerosene then ignited and led to the crash that killed all 109 people onboard as well as four people in a hotel on the ground.

In its verdict on Monday, the Pontoise court sentenced Continental maintenance mechanic John Taylor, 42, to a 15-month suspended sentence as the person who was responsible for welding the 17-in. titanium bar onto the DC-10 that took off shortly before the Concorde — losing the metal strip as it did so. The court also fined Continental $266,000 and ordered it to pay Concorde operator Air France $1.3 million in damages.

The ruling acquitted Taylor's Continental supervisor Stanley Ford, 71, of criminal responsibility in the disaster. The three French defendants — two civil aviation officials and Henri Perrier, ex-director of the Concorde program at aircraft manufacturer Aérospatiale, which has since merged into European aerospace group EADS — were cleared of similar charges. The court decided that none of the three men were guilty of what prosecutors claimed was their failure to act on knowledge that the design of the Concorde made its gas tanks vulnerable to exactly the kind of puncturing from burst tires that led to the 2000 crash. At the same time, however, the court ruled that EADS had "civil responsibility" for the doomed Concorde's safety, and ordered the group to pay 30% of damages to the families of the victims for its "negligence" in that regard. The entire verdict has made it likely that Air France — which has already paid more than $133 million to victims' relatives — will seek reimbursement from both Continental and EADS if the ruling is upheld in appeal.

Not surprisingly, the ruling has been hotly contested — and not just by those deemed guilty. Continental lawyer Metzner was adamant that the outcome was a clear effort by French officials to make a scapegoat of the U.S. airline. "This is a protectionist decision exclusively in the defense of French interests," Metzner told reporters outside the courthouse. Similarly, the attorney for Continental mechanic Taylor, François Esclatine, told news station i-Tele, "I do not understand how my client could be considered to have sole responsibility for the Concorde crash."

That view was shared by Roland Rappaport, an attorney representing the victims' families. "This decision is stupefying in saying an American [maintenance worker] is responsible for not foreseeing the potential consequences of a piece of metal he welded to a plane possibly falling off," Rappaport told French news channel LCI. "And at the same time, it says experts in France who let the Concorde fly for years despite knowledge of the vulnerability of its tanks to burst tires are beyond reproach. It's incredible."

With appeals already being filed, it's clear that the sad, decade-long story still isn't over. And no matter who is ultimately ruled as legally responsible for the crash, the reality remains that, in the end, all it took to bring down the world's fastest, chicest passenger plane for good was a thin band of metal — and the bad luck that caused it to fall off one jet and into the path of another.