Four die as roof section collapses at Charles de Gaulle airport

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Four people were killed by the partial collapse of a brand-new, showpiece air terminal at Charles de Gaulle airport north of Paris yesterday.

Four people were killed by the partial collapse of a brand-new, showpiece air terminal at Charles de Gaulle airport north of Paris yesterday.

French officials began a criminal investigation for manslaughter after a 30-metre by 20-metre section of the vaulted roof of the departure building - a futuristic, curving structure supported by stilts, hailed as a technological masterpiece when the terminal opened 11 months ago - fell into the passenger lounge just before 7am.

The concave, glass-and-steel walls gave way in turn and crushed airport service vehicles and a passenger gangway standing below.

Rescue workers thought originally that five people had died. A fire chief described the scene as "cataclysmic, just like an earthquake".

Terminal 2E is the partially completed jewel in the crown of Charles de Gaulle airport. It is reserved for the national flag carrier, Air France, and its partner airlines. If the building, capable of receiving 10,000 passengers at a time, had collapsed at a busier period than early Sunday morning, there could have been scores of victims.

The provisional casualty list was five dead (all believed to be passengers), one person critically injured and three police officers slightly hurt. The victims were not immediately named but fire department officials said that they included three women - from the Czech Republic, Ivory Coast and China.

Questions were already being asked in France about how such a recently completed building - symbolic of the engineering panache and aviation prowess dear to the country's heart - should have collapsed after only 11 months in service. There had been controversy before its opening last June, including union complaints that the work was being pushed forward too quickly.

Terminal 2E, which cost €750m (£500m), was intended as the beginning of an extensive new development at the eastern end of the sprawling Charles de Gaulle complex, which would allow the airport, and Air France, to become the leading players in the European aviation industry. The terminal was designed, in particular, to suit the 550-seat A-380 super-jumbos now under construction by Airbus. It was intended, with its neighbour terminal 2F, and two future satellites, as an entirely new "hub" for Air France and its partner airlines, including Delta, to allow Charles de Gaulle to overtake Heathrow and Frankfurt and become the busiest airport in Europe.

The collapse of a section of the departure lounge fronting the runways - the very part of the building most lauded for its engineering achievement and its light-filled interior - will cause an immediate capacity crisis for Air France.

The airline insisted that passengers would feel little impact and the average of 100 flights a day using terminal 2E could be accommodated in other parts of Charles de Gaulle. However, France's busiest tourist period is just getting under way. More than 60 flights were delayed as they were switched to other terminals. Experts suggestedit might be as long as two years before the departure building of terminal 2E could be re-opened.

The building, called La Jetée, or "the jetty", was constructed in one curving section, 700 metres (or seven football pitches) long and 30 metres wide, using architectural and engineering techniques developed especially for the project. Experts suggested that the collapse of a 20-metre section of the building might have left the remainder unsafe and suitable only for demolition.

"What they are going to have to find out rapidly, is exactly what kind of failure this was, and then they are going to have to check elsewhere to see whether that kind of weakness exists," said David Learmount of Flight International magazine.

"Is this a design weakness and do they have to stop using it? Or was there actually a construction mistake?"

Passengers noticed concrete dust cascading from the ceiling and heard cracking sounds a few minutes before the roof gave way. Police were trying to escort passengers away when a section of roof 600 metres square collapsed into the area containing duty-free shops, cafes and passenger lounges. The walls of the building, resembling a giant, bent airliner in shape, crumbled on to cars and airport trucks parked underneath.

If it had not been a holiday weekend, airport officials said, scores of airport workers would have been in the offices and rest areas under the building.

Hubert de Mesnil, the director-general of Aeroports de Paris (ADP), which supervised the design and construction of the terminal, said there had been "absolutely nothing" in the past to indicate a weakness in the building. "It's the structure that gave way, the structure itself," he told reporters.

The president of ADP, Pierre Graff, said: "This building was our showcase, our shop-window. It is a dark day for us."

Safety concerns - mostly about working conditions but also about the speed of construction - were raised by unions during a frantic push to complete the terminal on schedule last year. The government inspection team refused to grant a safety certificate at first, delaying the opening for one week after a chandelier plunged to the ground while the inspection team were in the building.