- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 26, 2000

GONESSE, France With flames and smoke streaking from its engines, an Air France Concorde carrying German tourists to New York for a Caribbean cruise crashed into a hotel outside Paris shortly after takeoff yesterday. At least 113 persons died.
It was the first fatal crash for the needle-nosed supersonic aircraft, for 30 years the pride of French and British aviation for its luxury, safety and speed. Immediately after the crash all Concordes were grounded.
Air France said one of the plane's four engines appeared to have failed. Some witnesses reported that an engine burst into flame even before the plane left the ground.
"We saw flames shoot up 120 feet and there was a huge boom," said Samir Hossein, a 15-year-old student from Gonesse who was playing tennis. "The pilot tried to yank it up, but it was too late."
The passengers on flight AF4590 included 96 Germans, two Danes, one Austrian and one American, as well as nine crew members, the airline said. The American was a retired Air France employee, but the company did not release a name. Four other persons were killed at the small hotel leveled in the crash, the Interior Ministry said.
A pall of acrid smoke rose from the blackened wreckage and over the wheat fields at Gonesse, a small town near Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport. Firefighters sprayed the rubble with water, and the twisted metal from the plane which was fully fueled for its trans-Altantic run was hardly recognizable as a fuselage.
French television showed a dramatic photograph of the disabled plane flying low over the airport, flames spewing from the engines on one wing.
The Concorde struggled to gain altitude, then banked before slamming into the hotel.
"For those who were witnesses, of whom I was one, it seems that there was a fire in one or more of the engines on takeoff," Air France President Jean-Cyril Spinetta told reporters at the airport.
The crash did not appear to be linked to cracks found recently in both British Airways and Air France Concordes. Air France said this particular plane, in service since 1980, did not have reported fissures.
The first Concorde plane flew in 1969. With the crash, there are now 12 of the distinctive delta-wing jets in the Air France and British Airways fleets. British Airways canceled its two night Concorde flights from London to New York and New York to London.
French Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot ordered all Concorde flights suspended for today. Mr. Spinetta of Air France said the day would be used to check the rest of the company's Concordes.
In Washington, the National Transportation Safety Board said it would send an investigator to Paris because the Concorde regularly flies to the United States.
The plane that crashed had flown 12,000 hours and had its last mechanical checkup July 21.
Police said three persons on board the flight were under 18 years old. Five persons on the ground were injured, police said. Premier Lionel Jospin said their condition was "good from a medical standpoint."
Moments after takeoff from Charles de Gaulle at 4:44 p.m. local time, the plane slammed into a parking lot and the hotel, which stood next to a larger hotel, the 40-room Hotelissimo, surrounded by farmlands about nine miles northeast of central Paris.
British businessman Darren Atkins told SKY TV news he was aboard another aircraft behind the Concorde on the tarmac. "As it accelerated down the runway the engine was already smoking."
"Before it started to take off the left hand engines were visibly on fire," he said. "They were burning very heavily. So much so in fact on the tarmac was some debris that had clearly fallen off the engine," he said.
Sylvie Lucas of Paris, who was at the airport waiting for her children, also said she saw the plane on fire before it lifted off.
"We were waiting to hear the explosion because we thought it was going to fall here [at the airport]," she said.
Frederic Savery, 21, was driving along the highway when he saw the plane go down. "It passed [60 feet] above us, the whole back end of the plane was on fire," he said. "We saw it start to turn, but we didn't hear a noise when it crashed. All of a sudden, everything was black, we stopped right there and called the firefighters."
The passengers had been on a trip meant for laid-back leisure: champagne on the Concorde, then a slow cruise on the MS Deutschland through the Panama Canal to Ecuador.
Tour operator Peter Deilmann said the cruise, which had a total of 510 passengers booked, would not be canceled.
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.
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 3 and 1/2 hours, much faster than regular jetliners.
A round-trip Paris-New York ticket costs $9,000, roughly 25 percent more than first class on a regular jet. A London-New York round trip runs $9,850.
Air France officials have said in the past that their current fleet was fit to fly safely until 2007.
Mr. Jospin, visibly moved, and his transport minister, Mr. Gayssot, visited the crash scene. "It's a terrible moment," Mr. Gayssot said. President Jacques Chirac promised to pay homage today to the victims.
Presidential spokeswoman, Agathe Sanson said Mr. Chirac was leaving the airport at the time of the crash, having just returned from the G-8 summit in Japan.
Condolences poured in from all over, including German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and President Clinton.
"I wanted to extend the deepest condolences of the American people to the families of those who are lost," Mr. Clinton said.

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