Prosecutor pledges swift criminal probe into Concorde crash

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The Independent Online

Air France confirmed Friday that its Concorde supersonic jets would remained grounded until further notice as the company prepared to hold its own private tribute to the crew and victims of the crash that killed 113 people.

Air France confirmed Friday that its Concorde supersonic jets would remained grounded until further notice as the company prepared to hold its own private tribute to the crew and victims of the crash that killed 113 people.

It was unclear just when Air France would start up its Concorde flights again. British Airways already has resumed its flights from London to New York, but the French Transport Minister, Jean-Claude Gayssot, said earlier this week that France didn't want to take any risks.

Air France was planning a private memorial Friday afternoon at company headquarters at Charles de Gaulle airport, where the doomed Concorde started its short and fatal flight and not far from the accident site. The town of Gonesse, where the jet crashed, is holding a silent march early Friday evening in honor of the dead.

In an earlier development, a French prosecutor promised a swift probe to decide whether to lay criminal charges in connection with the crash as new reports of a chain of mechanical problems continued to trickle out.

Xavier Salvat, prosecutor for the Val d'Oise region where the luxury supersonic jet went down in flames Tuesday, said he had taken the rare step of appointing three investigative magistrates, rather than just one, because the investigation promises to be complex. Witnesses can be called to testify.

Salvat said Thursday the probe would decide who, if anyone, should be charged with involuntary homicide and involuntary injury. The first of these offenses is defined as a negligent killing and punishable with up to three years in prison.

"We want to act in such a way that the proceedings both determine the cause of the accident quickly and provide information for the families of the victims," Salvat said. He gave no timeframe for completing the probe, but it could last months.

Salvat also declined to say what, if anything, his team had learned since the investigation began on Wednesday, a day after Air France Flight 4590 caught fire while taking off from Charles de Gaulle Airport and crashed two minutes later into a small hotel in Gonesse, north of Paris. All 109 people aboard and four in the hotel were killed.

Ninety-six of the New York-bound passengers were German tourists heading to New York to join a Caribbean cruise.

Attention has focused on engine No. 2, which is under the left wing, as the probable source of the fire. Concordes have four Rolls-Royce engines, two under each wing.

Air France on Friday denied a newspaper report that the post-combustion chamber had been changed the morning of the accident and said it deplored the publication of erroneous information.

French daily Le Parisien, citing unnamed sources, reported earlier that mechanics changed a pump in the post-combustion chamber of the No. 2 engine.

The pump, near the back of the engine, sends jet fuel under high pressure into the turbine, giving a "necessary push during takeoff," the article cited experts as saying.

The report also cited an aircraft mechanic as saying a malfunctioning or broken pump could turn the back portion of the turbine into a "real blowtorch."

"The only pertinent and exact information" are from the Transport Ministry's official investigative office and Air France, an Air France statement said.

The Transport Ministry said a preliminary report of the investigation would be published at the end of August.

The Transport Ministry also disclosed late Thursday after decoding the black box voice and data recorders that not only did engine No. 2 fail, but engine No. 1 right next to it lost some power during takeoff.

It said the plane could not even retract its landing gear, and left behind a trail of debris on the runway, including tire parts. This raised speculation that a piece of tire may have been sucked into an engine and triggered a fire.

"We can surmise that a tire or several tires on the landing gear exploded, that the debris from the tires got into the air duct of one of the engines," aviation writer and former pilot Germain Chambost told France's LCI television.

He added that a piece of tire in the engine during takeoff could cause "serious damage."

The National Union for Ground Engineers also said that a foreign body could have got into the engines before takeoff.

But officials said it was too early to determine the exact cause of the engine failure and fire on the left side of the plane.

While experts sought to find the reason for the crash, others were mourning the effects.

French and German officials and blue-uniformed airline crews joined weeping relatives of crash victims for a multi-denominational memorial service Thursday at Paris' 18th-century Madeleine church.

Tiny white candles, each representing a lost life, lit the altar and a choir filled the great nave with Johann Sebastian Bach's plaintive "Passion."

Air France, which has promised to compensate victims' families, said Thursday it would pay an advance of $20,000 each to help cover immediate outlays, such as funeral costs.

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