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Concorde crash trial opens in Paris

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Concorde crash trial
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Lawyer urges suspension of trial; judge wants expert testimony
  • Concorde jet crashed in 2000, killing 113 people
  • Five people, Continental Airlines on trial for involuntary manslaughter
  • 2004 investigation found thin metal strip caused tire to burst

Paris, France (CNN) -- Nearly 10 years after the deadly crash of an Air France Concorde jet, a trial began Tuesday to determine who's to blame for the doomed flight.

The judge began the trial by reading out the names of all 113 people who were killed when the plane burst into flames and smashed into a hotel on July 25, 2000.

Three French people responsible for the design, testing and certification of the Concorde face charges of involuntary manslaughter.

Also on trial are Continental Airlines and two of its American employees, accused of the same crime because a Continental Airlines jet was found to have played a key role in the crash. The Americans were not present for the opening day.

The head of an organization representing the victims of disasters criticized the trial as it began.

Stephane Giquel of Fenvac said the trial would be a dehumanized battle of experts as Continental and Air France sought to blame each other. Air France is not on trial.

A lawyer representing Continental said Concorde's problems were apparent decades before the crash.

Then-French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing told his Council of Ministers in 1980 that the Concorde needed to be improved, lawyer Olivier Metzner said Tuesday.

Video: Air France crash trial starts
Video: Concorde case background
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Jacques Chirac, who was president at the time of the Concorde crash, saw it take place and reportedly said Concorde is dead, Metzner said. In fact, that is what Giscard d'Estaing should have said in 1980, he argued.

Metzner said the trial should be suspended because it is not fair to Continental, but presiding judge Dominique Andreassier said she would not rule on the request until after some expert testimony, which could take months.

An investigation revealed a tragic chain of events that brought down Air France Flight 4590 shortly after takeoff from Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport: A tire under the left wing blew on takeoff when it struck a small strip of titanium metal on the runway.

The blown tire sent debris into the wing, causing the fuel tank to rupture and sparking the catastrophic fire that led to the crash, which killed 100 passengers, nine crew and four people on the ground.

Metzner said the plane was on fire before it hit the metal fragment.

According to the charges, the Concorde engineers on trial could have acted much earlier to correct well-known design flaws in the plane, whose tanks had insufficient protection from debris.

Prosecutors are likely to present evidence that because of its higher-than-normal takeoff speeds, there were more than 60 tire blowouts over the Concorde's 25 years in the air. Only one Concorde ever crashed.

The titanium strip that is said to have played a major role in the crash allegedly fell off a Continental DC-10, which took off just before the Concorde. Judicial investigators say the strip was improperly installed on the DC-10 engine, prompting the charges against the airline and two of its employees.

Air France and British Airways introduced supersonic commercial service in 1976, but the disaster, combined with high maintenance costs and falling passenger numbers, led both airlines to retire the Concorde fleet in 2003.

The trial is expected to last about four months.

CNN's Jim Bittermann and Alix Bayle contributed to this report

 
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