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Leak caused jet’s flames, probers say

SHARE Leak caused jet’s flames, probers say

PARIS — The flames spewing from an Air France Concorde in the moments before it crashed outside Paris last week most likely came from a major fuel leak, not from the engines, investigators studying the crash said.

On Monday, French prosecutors said 113 bodies — not 114 as had been announced last week — have been removed from the area where the plane slammed into a hotel in the town of Gonesse. In Paris, meanwhile, top civil aviation experts were meeting to decide whether Air France Concorde flights should be resumed.

Those developments came a day after investigators offered new information on the disaster, saying they had found what appeared to be part of the doomed plane's fuel tank on the runway at Charles de Gaulle airport.

"The flames seen after takeoff did not come from the engine, but, in all likelihood, from a major fuel leak," the Accident and Inquiry Office, part of France's Transport Ministry, said in a statement.

The pieces found on the runway support the theory that debris from one or more ruptured tires pierced a part of the plane, leading to a fire. The Transport Ministry said Friday it had determined that at least one tire had exploded on the plane's undercarriage, "which could have triggered a chain of events, structural damages, a fire and an engine breakdown."

Investigators, still trying to piece together details of the crash, already know that the jet's engine No. 2 failed, that the pilot could not draw up the undercarriage and that engine No. 1 lost power. But even before Sunday's statement, the Accident and Inquiry Office had said the stream of flames pouring from the jetliner's left side did not necessarily start in the engines.

Following the crash, Air France immediately grounded its fleet of five remaining Concordes.

Monday's meeting in Paris brought together British experts and representatives of the French civil aviation authority, Air France and the British and French engine manufacturers Rolls-Royce and SNECMA. They were studying extra safety measures that the Transport Ministry has said should be implemented before the Air France Concordes get the green light to fly again.

No comment from the experts was expected until late in the day.

Most of those killed in the crash were German tourists en route to New York to begin a cruise. Xavier Salvat, the prosecutor in charge of the judicial inquiry, said Monday that 90 of the 113 victims had been autopsied and that 21 of them had been identified.

The bodies will be released to victims' families upon identification, a statement said. It added that the identification process could be lengthy.

British Airways, the only other airline to operate Concordes, resumed flights on most of its seven supersonic jets the day after the crash. On Sunday, a British Airways Concorde flying from London to New York with 57 passengers and nine crew members had to make an emergency stop in eastern Canada after the plane's captain smelled gasoline in the cabin, the airline said.

Despite the emergency landing and two other incidents over the weekend, British Airways planned to continue operating regular Concorde service out of London and New York on Monday.

"We wouldn't be flying unless we thought it was safe," said company spokeswoman Jemma Moore, who called the unscheduled landing a precautionary measure.

Despite the Concorde's relatively unblemished safety record, blown-out tires have been blamed in the past for brushes with near-disaster.

In 1981, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board reported five "potentially catastrophic" incidents resulting from blown-out tires during Concorde takeoffs between June 1979 and February 1981. British Airway's fleet of seven Concordes has suffered about 12 blown tires since 1988, London's Sunday Times quoted an unidentified executive at the airline as saying.