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Concorde Crash: Officials Debate Causes While Gonesse Recovers

Aired July 26, 2000 - 1:01 p.m. ET


LOU WATER, CNN ANCHOR: The multinational investigation into the first ever crash of a supersonic Concorde jetliner is focused on engine number two. We now know the engine that spouted those flames just moments after takeoff had undergone emergency repairs just minutes before that. Investigators hope to learn more from the plane's flight data and cockpit voice recorders,

And CNN's Christiane Amanpour now joins us from Charles de Gaulle Airport, just outside Paris.

Christiane, what's the latest?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Lou, investigators did find those flight data recorders relatively quickly. They found those last night. But they say that they will not have information on what they contain for 24 to 48 hours after they started reading through them and checking them and investigating the data on them.

But Air France itself is beginning to release whatever information it knows at the moment about this catastrophic engine failure which appears to have been the cause, according to Air France. We've seen now this famous, terrifying picture of the Concorde barely able to climb above the tree tops, here at Charles de Gaulle airport, with that huge plume of smoke and fire streaking out of its rear engine.

And what we're being told today by Air France is that this Concorde flight, when it came back from its return trip from to New York on Monday, reported a fault in engine number two. Concorde has four engines. It said that engine number two had a faulty reverse thrust.

A reverse thrust is the piece of the engine, the piece of equipment that decelerates the plane, that slows the plane down once it touches down upon landing. Those people who built Concorde said that this fault did not make it not air worthy. In other words, that it was still safe to fly. But the judgment and assessment would be left up to the pilot.

The pilot, according to Air France, at the last minute said that he wanted that spare part replaced. He wanted the faulty reverse thrust replaced because he had a full load. We don't know what that means. But we presume that that means he needed to be sure of being able to decelerate with a full load, once he touched down upon landing in New York.

In any event, the maintenance crew was sent out to the plane, replaced that faulty part, and that took about 30 minutes, and that accounted for the delay. The pilot then said he was ready to take off. We hear additional information now from the local authorities who have legal jurisdiction over this area and over the legal part of the investigation into the first-ever Concorde crash.

They say that less than a minute after the plane took off that the control tower radioed the pilot saying "fire on board." The pilot, according to this local authority here, radioed back saying, "problem, failure with engine two." Pilot then indicating that he would try to turn and go to the La Bourge (ph) Airport, which is very here to -- Charles de Gaulle, to try to land there.

And then the rest is up to what the eyewitnesses have reported they saw. They saw the plane swerve. They saw a looping gesture and then the plane crashed into a ball of flames. That's what we know so far. We're waiting for a press conference from the minister of transportation to see whether there are any more details that they can tell us as to what happened -- Lou.

WATERS: Christiane, I hope you can hear me over all that racket there at Charles de Gaulle, but are spare parts a problem for this aging Concorde fleet?

AMANPOUR: Well, we don't know whether they are a problem in general. But what we do know is that the spare part in question, that would have been necessary to repair this faulty reverse thrust, was not available at the time that it was reported faulty. However, when the pilot said that he did want it changed, they found that part from another Concorde and brought it to the Concorde that was flying to replace that.

WATERS: Christiane Amanpour, keeping watch at Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris today.

Natalie, what's next?

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: As so often happens with airline disasters, there are people today who avoided the crash of the Air France Concorde through nothing more than fate. Thirty-three members of the same tour group that perished, took an earlier flight to New York, also a Concorde, because the charter flight had been overbooked. It's not clear whether those people had family or friends on the Concorde that crashed.

And the hotel in Gonesse would have been much more crowded but for the fact that 45 tourists from Poland were out on a day trip. They arrived back from Paris to find their rooms destroyed.

Eventually, a town near an airport gets used to the takeoffs and landings, hour after hour, week after week. But the otherwise quiet town of Gonesse is in shock today over a disaster of historic proportions.

Our coverage continues with CNN's Tom Mintier.


TOM MINTIER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When you live next to a major airport, low flying aircraft are never far away. They become part of daily routine. For the people of Gonesse, Charles de Gaulle Airport is more than a neighbor. Many of the people who live here also work there. The Concorde flights from Paris always rattle the windows here, now they have rattled the nerves.

Thierry Georgin's downtown restaurant is usually busy at lunchtime. But this day, regulars stayed home. Journalists covering the tragedy filled all the booths.

"I've lived in Gonesse for 35 years" he says. "Every two weeks we think about it. We have trouble sleeping because we think that maybe a plane is going to crash. The Concorde fell in the field, had it fallen in the town," he says, "there would have been many dead, many hurt. It would have been very difficult for us."

It is difficult for Saureche Carriot. He works at the airport and was close to the spot where the Concorde fell from the sky.

SAURECHE CARRIOT, AIRPORT WORKER: I didn't see the impact in fact, but I heard a huge explosion. I closed my eyes, after that I opened my eyes, I saw that it was a huge, big fire.

MINTIER: He sold three of his pictures of the crash site fire to a French magazine for 10,000 francs or $1,500. The small pieces of the Concorde, he says, fell from the sky just seconds before it crashed, showering his car with debris. Some people living here complain that they are reminded of the airport's proximity each day. Their cars are often showered with oil and jet fuel from low-flying aircraft.

YVES COUSQUER, DIR. PARIS AIRPORTS: This is one of the aspects of our civilization which is not without any risk.

MINTIER: The director of the Paris Airport Authority would not say if he would seek to ban the Concorde from operating at his airports. He stressed that this accident did not occur from heavy air congestion. He says, however, that the French government will now consider building a third airport further away from Paris.

COUSQUER: There was some thinking about a new airport, a third airport. And the minister of transportation, this morning, confirmed that the government was apt to decide about the principle of a third airport. This could come in the next few months.

MINTIER: For some people not employed by the airport, this could mean fewer flights and less sleepless nights.

(on camera): It may take some time for the village of Gonesse to return to normal. For many, that may not be possible. The constant roar of jets overhead will serve a constant reminder of the day things went terribly wrong. Tom Mintier, CNN, Gonesse, France.




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