No Survivors as Concorde Crashes Near Paris

Tuesday, July 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PARIS Jul 25 -- An Air France Concorde en route to New York City crashed outside Paris shortly after takeoff Tuesday, slamming into a hotel and a restaurant. At least 113 people were killed when the charter flight of German tourists went down in the first-ever crash of the supersonic jet.

Police said all 109 passengers and crew onboard were killed and four others died at the 72-room Relais Bleus hotel. At least a dozen others were injured at the hotel, they said.

The hotel was in flames after the crash, and sections had been reduced to blackened rubble and twisted metal. Firefighters poured streams of water on the completely blackened wreckage. The remains of the Concorde were barely recognizable as an airplane fuselage.

There was no immediate word on what might have caused the crash. In the more than 30 years that Concorde jets have flown, none had gone down.

All passengers aboard Flight AF4590 were German, Air France said. The plane had been chartered by Peter Deilmann Shipping Co., a German tour company, and the passengers were on their way to New York to join a cruise ship.

The crash took place at 4:44 p.m. in an area of farmland crisscrossed by highways and the small town of Gonesse, about nine miles northeast of Paris. The plane went down soon after takeoff from Charles de Gaulle airport.

Witnesses said the supersonic aircraft was not able to gain sufficient altitude before it crashed, and that police were keeping onlookers away from the site. Some witnesses said the engine was on fire and that a huge cloud of black smoke went up in the air.

Samir Hossein, 15, a student in Gonesse, was playing tennis with friends when they saw the plane go by with an engine on fire.

"We saw it lose altitude. It chopped off those trees and headed to the ground," Hossein told The Associated Press. "The pilot tried to bank but the plane rolled over and smacked into the hotel nose first and turned over.

We saw flames shoot up 40 meters (yards) and there was a huge boom," he said.

Frederic Savery, 21, was driving along a highway on the way home when he saw the plane go down near Gonesse.

"I saw the plane, it passed 30 meters above us, the whole back end of the plane was on fire," Savery told the AP. "We saw it start to turn, but we didn't hear a noise when it crashed. All of a sudden, everything was black."

Clouds of dark smoke could be seen for miles around. Police had blocked off all roads leading to the scene of the crash, backing up traffic on rural roads in the farm fields near the airport. Dozens of fire trucks and ambulances rushed to the scene. Hours after the crash, huge clouds of smoke continued to billow over a nearby wheat field, and an acrid smell filled the air.

Sid Hare, a Federal Express pilot who was at a hotel several miles from the airport, said the plane went down in a ball of fire. He said he could "see smoke trailing" from one of the plane's two left engines before the crash.

"It started rolling over and backsliding down to the ground. At that point it was probably two miles from me," he told CNN. "It was a sickening sight, just a huge fireball."

French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and French Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot were expected at the airport later Tuesday. In Washington, President Clinton said he "wanted to extend the deepest condolences of the American people to the families of those who are lost."

In Berlin, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder expressed his deepest condolences. The government said Schroeder had canceled his evening appointments to stay on top of developments.

An official at Peter Deilmann Shipping in the German city of Neustadt said the passengers came from various German states and met in Paris to fly together for the cruise aboard the MS Deutschland, which is anchored in New York.

The German Foreign Ministry has set up crisis management centers in both Berlin and Paris, the ministry said. The ministry said more information would have to wait until the passengers names' were confirmed with passenger lists.

On Monday, British Airways said it had found cracks in the wings of some of its supersonic Concorde aircraft, but said there was no danger to passengers.

After the crash Tuesday, the British airline canceled its two Monday night Concorde flights between London and New York.

"We have complete confidence in our Concorde aircraft and our engineering," the airline said in a press release. "Nevertheless, in these circumstances -- and while information is still coming in -- we have taken the unprecedented step of canceling tonight's flights."

The French air regulator, the DGAC, sent investigators to the crash site. But any decision to ground Air France's other five Concordes was not expected until the inquiry into the cause of the crash had taken place.

The Concorde, which crosses the Atlantic at 1,350 mph, has been considered among the world's safest planes. Its only major scare came in 1979, when a bad landing blew out a plane's tires. The incident led to a design modification.

On Jan. 30 of this year, a Concorde aircraft made an emergency landing at Heathrow -- the second such landing within a 24-hour period by one of the supersonic jets. A cockpit alarm had sounded, warning of a fire in the rear cargo hold, but engineers found no problem.

The previous day, one of four engines had shut down on a Concorde as it approached Heathrow.

The plane is popular with celebrities, world-class athletes and the rich. It flies above turbulence at nearly 60,000 feet, crossing the Atlantic in about 31/2 hours, less than half that of regular jetliners.

The first Concorde plane flew in 1969. Now, 13 of the needle-nosed supersonic jets are operated by Air France and British Airways. A roundtrip Paris-New York ticket costs $9,000, roughly 25 percent more than regular first class. A London-New York roundtrip runs $9,850.

Air France officials have said in the past that their current fleet is fit to fly safely until 2007.