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French court upholds Concorde crash trial

PONTOISE, France — A French court on Wednesday rejected defense lawyers' requests to call off the long-awaited trial on the crash of a Concorde supersonic jet — a decision clearing the way for four months of intense debate on who was to blame.

Continental Airlines, Inc., two of its employees and three longtime French aviation officials are on trial for manslaughter in the fiery July 25, 2000 crash of the jet, which plunged into a hotel soon after takeoff from Charles de Gaulle airport, killing all 109 people aboard and four on the ground. The trial, expected to last through May, entered its second day Wednesday.

The Houston-based carrier is on trial because investigators say a Continental DC-10 dropped a metal piece onto the runway minutes before the Concorde took off. They say the runway debris gashed the plane's tire, sending pieces of rubber into the fuel tanks and sparking a fire.

Continental denies any responsibility, saying a fire broke out on the Concorde before the plane reached the runway debris.

Olivier Metzner, the airline's lawyer, was among attorneys who argued Tuesday that the trial in Pontoise, northwest of Paris, should be called off because the indictment did not make note of arguments in the defendants' favor, which is required by law.

The court denied the request to stop the trial immediately, and presiding judge Dominique Andreassier said the court would provide its opinion on the indictment when it issues its verdict. She did not give the court's reasoning, but it would have been extremely unusual to halt the proceedings.

The trial's goal is to assign responsibility; compensation for victims' families is not a major issue because most received settlements years ago.

As the trial opened a day earlier, Continental argued that investigators had unjustly pursued the U.S. airline from the outset. Metzner said they failed to follow up on leads from 23 witnesses who said a fire broke out on the Concorde eight seconds, or 700 meters (about 2,300 feet), before it even reached the metal debris.

Continental mechanic John Taylor, 41, is accused of violating guidelines by replacing the DC-10's wear strip with titanium instead of a softer metal usually called for, such as aluminum. France has issued an arrest warrant for him. Retired maintenance chief Stanley Ford, 70, is on trial for validating the strip's installation. Neither traveled to France for the trial's opening.

The prosecution also accuses French officials of underestimating trouble spots on the Concorde. While France's aviation authority concluded the crash could not have been predicted, a judicial inquiry determined that the plane's fuel tanks lacked sufficient protection from shock and said officials had been aware of the problem since a series of incidents in 1979.

The three retired French officials on trial are Henri Perrier, 80, ex-chief of the Concorde program at plane maker Aerospatiale from 1978 to 1994; Jacques Herubel, 74, a top Aerospatiale engineer at Concorde from 1993-95; and Claude Frantzen, 72, who handled the Concorde program in various roles at the French civil aviation authority.

Their lawyers say they were not to blame, pointing to French aviation investigators' finding that the crash could not have been foreseen.

The Concorde, capable of flying at twice the speed of sound, was retired by both Air France and British Airways in 2003. Some of the jets are now on display at museums.