The Big Moment: 'We didn't hear a noise when it crashed. All of a sudden, everything was black'

Concorde crashes in Paris, Tuesday 25 July 2000
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Air France Flight 4590 was engulfed with flames as it left Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. It came down just moments later, killing 109 passengers and four people on the ground. A strip of metal on the runway was blamed, and the crash led to Concorde being pulled out of service temporarily. It was officially retired in 2003, 27 years after its maiden flight.

Through the huge column of white smoke, all that could be seen was a blackened Delta wing, with its wheels pointing poignantly skywards and the burnt-out frame of a small roadside hotel. The Air France Concorde, Flight AF4590, which crashed on take-off from Charles de Gaulle airport yesterday, came down in painfully familiar, airport-fringe countryside: next to a dual carriageway and flyover, beside a small cornfield with shopping malls and light industries in the distance.

The death toll of 113, tragic as it was, might have been worse. A party of 50 British students from the Suffolk youth orchestra, wind band and choir arrived 40 minutes after the crash to stay in the Hotelissimo, the two-star hotel upon which the plane had fallen a few minutes after take-off from Paris. The Concorde, one of five operated by Air France, had been chartered by a German tour company to take a party of 100 to New York to start on an ocean cruise. Most of the 47 men, 50 women and three children on board are believed to have been German. The nine crew were all French. Four other victims killed on the ground were believed to be hotel workers.

Witnesses described seeing the plane taking off from the main Paris airport with flames up to four metres long roaring from its two left-side engines. "It hadn't left the ground and already it was on fire," said Sylvie Lucas, from Paris, who was at the airport waiting for her children. "The flames were coming from the back of the plane. We were waiting to hear the explosion because we thought it was going to fall here [at the airport[," Ms Lucas said.

Christophe Furet, who watched from his office window, said: "The plane seemed to reach a certain height and then no more. I could see flames all along the left side of the fuselage. It did a 45-degree turn, as if looking for somewhere to land again, but then it fell like a stone and there was a huge explosion."

Air France refused to comment on any possible connection between the disaster – the first to befall a Concorde in 31 years of flying – and reports earlier this week that small fissures had been found in the wings of Concordes operated by British Airways.

Investigators are expected to examine whether the failure of one or more of the engines could have led to the disaster. Police at the crash scene prevented journalists from approaching the smoking wreckage of the Concorde but, from 100 metres away, it appeared that the plane had struck the Hotelissimo and then flipped on to its back. Airport officials said that, seconds before the crash, the pilot had informed traffic control that he intended to try an emergency landing on the N- 17 dual carriageway, between Charles de Gaulle and Le Bourget airports. It appears that while he was attempting this manoeuvre, the plane suffered a catastrophic loss of power and crashed into the hotel.

Frederic Savery, 21, was driving home on the highway when he saw the plane go down near Gonesse, 15km (nine miles) north-east of central Paris. "I saw the plane. It passed 30m (90ft) above us, the whole back end of the plane was on fire," he said. "We saw it start to turn, but we didn't hear a noise when it crashed. All of a sudden, everything was black, we stopped right there and called the firefighters."

Another witness, Christophe Bay, said he saw the plane coming down in flames "as if it was a bomb of napalm".

The French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, and his Transport Minister, Jean-Claude Gayssot, visited the scene soon after the crash. Mr Gayssot said: "It's a terrible moment," and called for all Concordes to be grounded to allow time for the crash to be investigated.

Three separate inquiries are already under way, one by the French judiciary, another by Air France and the third by the country's transport safety agency. Hundreds of policemen and firefighters searched the corn fields around the crash site, looking for further victims and possible clues to the cause of the disaster. Investigators were searching for the black-box data recorder, which should hold vital clues to the cause of the tragedy. The cockpit voice recorder, which recorded conversations between the pilot and air traffic controllers in Paris, was also being sought. Once found, the recorders will be taken to an accident investigation centre in the French capital to be decoded.

British Airways suspended all its Concorde flights last night, although it said it had "complete confidence" in the design. "Nevertheless, in these circumstances – and while information is still coming in – we have taken the unprecedented step of cancelling tonight's flights," it said. The decision grounded a BA flight from New York to London. "We will be holding discussions with our technical counterparts at Air France and reviewing tomorrow's operations overnight," the airline added.

At Heathrow, one shaken passenger had been steeling himself to board the flight when BA grounded the Concorde only 30 minutes before take-off. "It's the right decision," he said. "I was very apprehensive. I had not made my mind up about whether to board it."

Ten people who were injured on the ground, some seriously, were taken to hospital. One report suggested a survivor from the plane was among them, but this was later played down by officials. Philip Shaw, 49, the Suffolk county director of music, was eager to reassure parents that his students were safe. "All our party is accounted for. No one was here when the plane came down. This is a terrible, terrible event but parents should be reassured that no one is in danger, our tour will go on. The students, aged between 14 and 22, are part of a larger party of 212 starting a music tour in France. He confirmed that the 50 students in the wind band had been due to stay in the Hotelissimo.

Mr Shaw said: "We are all pretty shaken by what has happened but we were never threatened in any way. We were just lucky, I suppose, that we didn't arrive a little earlier. We will carry on with the tour, while thinking of the relatives of those who died."

One of the hotel's selling points was that it was situated close to Asterix Park and Disneyland. The hotel's website advertises a nine-seater minibus to transport guests and adds: "Although it's in the middle of fields don't worry."

Charles Coste of the French civil aviation authority said he aircraft's certificate was issued in May 1975 and that the last check on it had been on 21 July. "For the moment, we do not have any information from the bureau of investigations."

Tony Blair wrote to German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, French President Jacques Chirac and Mr Jospin to express his "shock and sympathy" on behalf of the Government, his spokesman said. The US President, Bill Clinton, broke off a news conference, called to announce the failure of the Middle East peace talks at Camp David, near Washington, to send a message of condolence to the relatives of those who died.