26 July 2000
113 killed in Concorde crash
By Patrick Bishop and Harry de Quetteville in Paris
A sheet of flame shoots from the rear of a doomed Air France Concorde just after take-off at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris yesterday. Seconds later the plane "exploded like an atom bomb" on a hotel in the village of Gonesse, killing all 100 passengers and nine crew and four people on the ground.
It was the first disaster to strike the world's only supersonic airliner. Most of the dead were German holidaymakers bound for New York, where they were due to join a cruise ship for a trip to Ecuador via Cuba and the Bahamas. They included three children. Two Danes and an American were also reported to have been aboard.
Witnesses on the ground heard two deafening explosions before the Concorde ploughed into the Hotelissimo hotel and restaurant complex at Gonesse, 10 miles north-east of Paris, and on into a cornfield. A French chambermaid, two Polish trainees and a fourth person were believed to have died in the hotel. Only five people were in the hotel at the time.
British Airways immediately cancelled two Concorde flights to New York and the French transport ministry grounded its five remaining Concordes. BA said that it had "complete confidence" in its aircraft but had taken its decision while information was still coming in.
Speculation that the disaster could have been caused by cracking in the wings discovered in 11 of the 13 Concordes operated by British Airways and Air France was quashed by Air France's managing director, Jean-Cyril Spinetta. During a visit to the scene of the disaster he blamed engine failure as an investigation began. Aircraft experts confirmed his view.
Darren Atkins, a British businessman who was on board a plane waiting to take off, said that the Concorde's left-side engines were on fire before it left the ground and that debris dropped off. He said: "It was already smoking as the plane accelerated down the runway.
"As the aircraft drew level with us - this is before it started to take off - the left-hand engines were burning very heavily. On the tarmac was some debris that had fallen off the engine. It was still on fire after the aircraft had departed." Sid Hare, an American pilot who saw the crash, said that the plane's four engines seemed to be racing two or three times louder than usual. He said: "It was a huge fireball, like a mini-atomic bomb One of the engines obviously had a catastrophic failure. It was trailing flames 200 or 300ft."
Asked about the pilot's actions, he said: "If I had to guess, I would say that he had engine failure before he left the ground but had to continue take off because he he had not enough runway to stop." Last night all that was left of the 20-year-old plane was a blackened jumble of twisted metal with only two undercarriage wheels pointing skywards left to indicate that it had once been an aircraft.
The disaster occurred at 3.47pm BST, shortly before a group of 65 musicians from Suffolk were due to check in at the hotel. Philip Shaw, the leader of the group, said: "As we drove towards the hotel we saw thick smoke rising in the distance. I knew the airport was close by and it quickly became obvious what had happened."
Hundreds of airport staff, passengers and people driving around the perimeter of the airport saw the crash. A Briton, Julian Pyke, who works in the cargo area, said: "The plane was about 500ft from the ground. It was obvious it had just taken off. The overriding thing about it was there was a great sheet of flames shooting out of the back of one wing. It was one of those experiences when everybody looks at everybody else with a 'It shouldn't be happening' sort of feeling."
Frederic Savary, 21, watched the Concorde dip as he was driving along the N17 motorway. He said: "It passed 90ft over us. The whole back end was on fire. We saw it start to turn. All of a sudden everything was black and we stopped immediately and called the firefighters."
Witnesses in Gonesse also described how they saw flames spurting from one of the aircraft's two left-side engines and felt the vibrations of the jets as the pilot struggled to gain height. Several said the pilot seemed to be trying to turn back when the Concorde dropped out of the sky. An airport worker said: "The plane took off with the engines on fire. Then it tried to do a half turn and fell to earth just as it was starting the manoeuvre."
Other witnesses described hearing a huge explosion when the Concorde was 150ft in the air and another as it turned over and crashed on its back to the ground. "We saw it lose altitude," said 15-year-old Samir Hossein, who was playing tennis nearby. It chopped off some trees and headed to the ground. 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 120ft and there was a huge boom."
Much of the Hotelissimo was reduced to rubble. Several injured people who were near the L-shaped two-storey building were said to be in "reasonable condition" in hospital last night.
Air France said recently that its Concordes were fit to fly safely for seven more years. The crashed plane had been in service since October 1980. The regular three-and-a-half-hour flight from Paris to New York costs £4,200 return on the Concorde, which started commercial flights in 1976.
A tour company, Peter Deilman, based in Neustadt, in northern Germany, had chartered the doomed plane to take the holidaymakers to New York. There they were to have boarded a liner, the MS Deutschland, for the cruise to Ecuador. Mr Deilman was overcome with emotion as he told German television that he was "deeply shocked" by the tragedy.
Gerhard Schroder, the German Chancellor, said that he was "overwhelmed" by the tragedy and President Jacques Chirac and the French prime minister, Lionel Jospin, expressed their sorrow at the accident and sent condolences to the relatives of the victims. The Queen and Tony Blair sent messages of sympathy to the German and French leaders.
The risk of fire and explosion due to an uncontained failure of the Rolls-Royce SNECMA Olympus 593 engines that power Concorde was first raised in 1976. A report by British Aerospace suggested that in a case of catastrophic engine failure, a fragment of hot metal could enter the fuel tank, causing an explosion.
Rarely for civil aircraft, Concorde's four engines are embedded in the wings, next to the fuel tanks. The risk was dismissed at the time as improbable. British Aerospace and Rolls-Royce refused last night to speculate on the cause of the crash.