Details emerge after Concorde crash ruling

(CBS News) A ruling out of a French appeals court this week cleared Continental Airlines of criminal responsibility for the 2000 crash of the Concorde, a now-retired supersonic passenger airliner.

When the Concorde took off from Paris on July 25, 2000, its left wing was already in flames. Soon after takeoff, the plane crashed into a hotel, killing the 109 passengers and crew on-board and four more people on the ground.

A 16-inch metal strip lying on the runway contributed to the crash. When the plane went over it, the tire exploded and the parts of the tire went up into the fuel tank, "like schrapnel," said Mark Rosenker, the former chairman of the National Transportation Safety board. The flying debris then exploded the Concorde's fuel tanks. 

The metal piece that triggered the accident had fallen off a Continental DC-10 plane and had been mistakenly installed by a Continental mechanic, CBS News' Mark Strassmann reported Friday on "CBS This Morning."

French courts held Continental Airlines criminally responsible for the tragedy and convicted the mechanic of manslaughter. This week, a French appeals court overturned the ruling, saying the mechanic's mistake did not amount to a crime.

The French appeals court blamed "political pressure" for keeping the Concorde in the skies for too long and cited safety design flaws with its landing gear and wings as well -- issues known before the crash -- in its decision.

CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg said that long before this week's ruling, there has "always been overwhelming evidence that other factors," besides the metal strip, were involved in the crash.

Greenberg added that the tires on the plane were "marginal at best," and noted a history of cases of "complete tire disintegration" on the Concorde. According to Greenberg, the plane was also missing a part of its landing gear on the nose.

Other factors contributed to the ill-fated flight, including the pilot's dismissal of information that the wind velocity and direction had suddenly changed direction before takeoff. The pilot decided to take off into a tailwind and Greenberg said, "no pilot does that."

Greenberg explained that fixes to the safety issues were available, but not put into place, at the time. "It's been reported that there were a number of safety features that could have been implemented...that were not done...maintenance does come into question," he said.

Further, he added that the French courts had access to this evidence during the original trial and that investigators ignored the accounts of several eyewitnesses -- from other pilots to airport firemen --  in their ruling to bring criminal charges against the Continental mechanic.