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Mechanical woes delayed craft

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GONESSE, France — The Concorde that crashed and killed 113 people outside Paris had been delayed for last-minute maintenance on one of its engines, and soon after takeoff, the pilot radioed that he had engine trouble and sought in vain to make an emergency landing.

That information was released Wednesday as authorities ordered all Air France Concorde flights indefinitely grounded. Air France owned the supersonic jet that plummeted into a hotel in flames Tuesday just after takeoff, leaving behind scattered clumps of blackened wreckage. All 109 people aboard and four on the ground were killed.

French forensic experts were busy Wednesday examining the charred bodies to determine their identities. Relatives of the victims, mainly German tourists, began arriving in Paris.

"Today Germany is shaken," Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said at a service for the victims at a chapel in Hanover, Germany, on the grounds of the World's Fair. Pope John Paul II sent condolences.

In France, President Jacques Chirac said "everything" would be done to determine the causes of the accident.

Air France said the crash of Flight AF4590 appeared to have been caused by a fire in one of the engines at the moment of takeoff. Possible causes of the fire ranged from birds flying into the air intake to mechanical failure, experts said.

Prosecutor Elisabeth Senot, who is in charge of the judicial investigation, said the control tower alerted the pilot that the back of the plane was on fire 56 seconds after takeoff. The pilot replied that he had engine trouble, at which point the flames were rapidly growing, France 2 television quoted Senot as saying.

The pilot responded that he could not stop the flight and was trying to reach Le Bourget, a nearby airport. "It is during this looping maneuver that the aircraft crashed on the hotel in Gonesse," France 2 quoted Senot as saying.

In a statement, Air France said the "engine reverse thruster" of engine 2 of the doomed plane was inoperative on its return from New York on Monday. Such thrusters are used to slow the plane upon landing.

Although the required piece was not available, Flight AF4590 was cleared for departure because of a technical level of tolerance allowed by the manufacturer, Air France said. However, the pilot, taking into account that the plane was full, ordered the replacement of the inoperative part, the statement said.

Workers made the repair using a part from a backup Concorde, the airline said. It did not indicate whether the last-minute repair could have been related to the catastrophe.

French Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot on Wednesday ordered the indefinite suspension of all Air France Concorde flights. He said he wanted more checks, with an emphasis on the recovered black boxes — the flight recorders and cockpit voice recorder.

"When we know a sufficient amount about them, and when we're in touch with our British colleagues, we will be able to consider the decision to resume," he said. However, he said the future of the Concorde was "not in question."

The Ministry of Transportation said the two recorders were damaged but had been found.

Air France already had grounded all Concorde flights Wednesday. British Airways canceled its two Tuesday night flights, but resumed Concorde service Wednesday between New York and London after completing safety checks.

French media speculated on whether this marked the end of the swooping "white bird," a source of French pride. The daily Le Figaro wrote, "The Concorde without a doubt died yesterday."

Until Tuesday, the Concorde had a perfect safety record during 31 years of service.

At least one of the two left-side engines was on fire as the plane took off at 4:44 p.m. from Charles de Gaulle airport carrying 100 passengers and 9 crew members, witnesses said. As the jet struggled to gain height, witnesses saw a plume of flame trailing 60 yards behind it.

All those aboard perished, along with four people on the ground. Twelve people were rushed out of Hotelissimo, the hotel that was hit. One was seriously injured, police said early Wednesday. A neighboring hotel was damaged.

But the toll on the ground could have been much worse: 45 Polish tourists who were staying at Hotelissimo had left earlier to go sightseeing. They returned after the crash to find an inferno where their hotel once stood.

Ninety-six of the passengers on board the Concorde were from Germany — 13 from the town of Moenchengladbach, on the border with the Netherlands. There were also two Danes, one Austrian and one American. The American, identified by the State Department as 65-year-old Christopher Behrens, was a retired Air France employee who was living in Germany.

The victims on the ground included two Polish hotel employees, the Polish Consulate in Paris confirmed. Television reports said the other two were a British tourist and a French woman.

Authorities said 81 bodies had been taken away for autopsies by Wednesday morning.

The Concorde passengers were headed for New York, where they planned to board a German cruise liner for a luxury voyage through the Caribbean. But the dream vacation ended in a nightmare of flame and black smoke at Gonesse, a small town near Charles de Gaulle airport about nine miles northeast of the French capital.

"We saw flames shoot up 40 meters (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 crash did not appear to be linked to cracks found recently in both British Airways and Air France Concordes. "There were no hairline cracks in this Concorde," Air France said.

The plane, full of fuel on takeoff for the Atlantic run, had been in service since 1980 and had flown 12,000 hours. It had its last mandatory regulatory checkup July 21.

Twelve of the needle-nosed supersonic jetliners are still operated by Air France and British Airways.

The Concorde, which first flew in 1969, has been considered among the world's safest planes. Air France officials had said in the past that their current fleet is fit to fly safely until 2007.

The plane, which crosses the Atlantic at 1,350 mph, 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 1/2 hours.