GONESSE, France — A blown tire that apparently threw off debris as the doomed Air France Concorde took off Tuesday may have set off a chain of events that led to the supersonic aircraft's fiery crash that killed 114 people, the French government said Friday.
Also, the fire that began before the Concorde became airborne probably began outside the engines, suggesting that tire debris may have punctured fuel lines or tanks in the wings, investigators said.
"From the information available at present to this body, it emerges that at least one tire burst, something that could have triggered a chain of events, damage to the plane's structure, a fire and engine failure," French Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot said in a statement.
Gayssot ordered the nation's aviation authorities to develop safety measures that would allow Air France to resume its Concorde flights. The airline said Friday that the flights were suspended indefinitely.
Concorde tires have blown out on takeoff before. U.S. safety inspectors warned French counterparts in a November 1981 report to change Air France Concorde procedures after four "potentially catastrophic" cases of blown tires on takeoff from New York and Washington area airports in a 20-month period.
The most serious incident occurred on June 14, 1979, when two tires on an Air France Concorde blew out at Washington's Dulles Airport casting off metal and rubber fragments that punctured wing fuel tanks and damaged an engine.
Afterward, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board recommended modifications to the landing gear, which were made. The NTSB released copies of its 19-year-old recommendations Friday.
Passenger Bill Lightfoot, then an aviation consultant headed for the Paris Air Show, recalled Friday having seen something zip by his window — vertically — as the wheels left the ground.
"I could see a hole in the wing — a big, jagged hole in the wing, with liquid gushing" that turned out to be fuel, said Lightfoot, now a vice president of a major U.S. defense contractor. Only after he threatened to storm the cockpit did the flight attendants send back the co-pilot to look.
"He says 'Mon Dieu' and the guy just turned white," Lightfoot recounted in a telephone interview with the Reuters News Agency. Before the crew realized what had happened and turned the flight around, the aircraft had been Paris-bound over the Atlantic.
Air France on Friday refused to speculate as to the whether a burst tire could have triggered Tuesday's fatal crash.
Also Friday, French investigators found the body of another victim in the hotel destroyed when the Concorde crashed into it. This raises the death toll to 114. That number includes the four other people died on the ground, and all 109 passengers and crewmembers aboard Air France Flight 4590.
The French Bureau of Accident Investigations, or the BEA, said in a statement Friday that at least one of the Concorde's four tires on the left wing burst on takeoff before it crashed. The BEA also said the flames seen on the left side of the aircraft during takeoff appeared to have started outside the engines.
"At the present time, no debris from inside the engine has been identified," the BEA said. "The fire appears to have started outside the engines, but this remains to be determined."
Patrick Amar, an aviation advisor to the French government, told CNN that debris from the tire could have led to the fire.
"This probably made some holes in the structures, and it's possible that some fuel came from the aircraft on the back of the aircraft," Amar said. "On the engines, this could have made a very big fire."
Former pilot and aviation expert Germain Chambost said on French television that the Concorde's engines could have been damaged after ingesting the tire debris. "At full takeoff speed, a tire that penetrates at that moment in the engine could cause very serious damage," he said.
The BEA said Thursday that one of the two left-side engines faltered twice during takeoff, while the other failed in the blaze that streamed fire 200 feet behind the Concorde during its two-minute flight.
The agency said the plane could not even retract its landing gear, and left behind a trail of debris on the runway, including tire parts.
At the crash-scene here in Gonesse, an industrial suburb north of Paris, investigators began to chart the charred wreckage, hoping to find thousands of parts to be taken to a French Air Force base for storage.
The families of the victims began the heart-breaking task of providing forensic specialists with personal information about their loved ones, such as the clothes or jewelry that they were wearing, so bodies can be identified.
Air France chairman Jean-Cyril Spinetta met Friday with families of mainly German victims to tell them about the progress of the crash investigation. He also led a remembrance service held at the company's head-office at Charles de Gaulle International Airport.
Spinetta spoke of "the same emotion, the same compassion, the same infinite sadness" uniting company staff, "touching us — both flyers and the personnel on the ground."
The first names of each of the dead were read individually like a solemn dirge: "Jean, Marie . . . " The service was punctuated periodically by the roar of jets on a nearby runway.
As the mourners in their navy blue Air France uniforms left the service, their grief was visible. Many women sobbed and one woman collapsed.
In Gonesse, nearly 1,500 residents, many carrying flowers, staged a procession from the town hall to the crash site in remembrance of the crash victims.
Leading the marchers were Gonesse Mayor Jean-Pierre Blazy and Michele Fricheteau, the hotel manager who survived the crash. She and other hotel employees, many with tears in their eyes, were the first to lay flowers near a fence erected by police at the crash site.
"I want to pay homage to the people who are dead, those who worked for me," said Fricheteau, whose face and hands were in bandages.