By Sophie Taylor
PONTOISE, France (Reuters) - Continental Airlines and five men went on trial on Tuesday for their alleged role in the crash of an Air France Concorde that killed 113 people in 2000 and brought an end to an era of luxury supersonic travel.
The Concorde, carrying mostly German tourists bound for a deluxe Caribbean holiday cruise, was taking off in Paris on 25 July 2000 when an engine caught fire. Trailing a plume of flames, it crashed into a hotel in the town of Gonesse, 6 km (4 miles) southwest of Charles de Gaulle airport.
Investigations found that a small piece of metal from a Continental aircraft that had taken off before the Concorde had punctured its tires, sending debris into the sleek drop-nosed plane's fuel tanks and setting off the fatal fire.
U.S. carrier Continental has always denied responsibility for the crash and questioned the safety record of the aging Concorde.
The trial, held at a modern court house in the small town of Pontoise, some 30 kilometers north of Paris, could have wide-ranging implications for the way the airline industry maintains its planes and the stringency of security measures.
The airline and the five individuals are facing charges of involuntary manslaughter for the crash. The accused men include John Taylor, a welder who worked for Continental at the time of the crash and his supervisor, Stanley Ford.
Henri Perrier, the head of testing of the Concorde program before becoming its director, and Jacques Herubel, the plane's former chief engineer, are also accused, as is Claude Frantzen, former head of France's civil aviation body.
All 109 passengers, including three children, and four hotel employees on the ground died in the crash.
"We want to remind (the court) that the plane was not empty, we want to bring in the human dimension so that the trial does not get lost in debates over technicalities," said Stephane Gicquel, secretary general of FENVAC, an association representing accident victims.
If found responsible, Continental Airlines faces a 375,000 euro ($521,700) fine, while the five individuals face 5 years imprisonment and a 75,000 euro fine, court officials said.
The trial is expected to last until May 28.
Continental's lawyer Olivier Metzner, said he would present witnesses disputing the version of events presented by investigators and he said there were doubts about the maintenance and safety record of the Concorde.
"I question the independence of the investigators, I question those who did not want the truth, I question Air France and it is evident that on July 25, 2000, the Concorde should never have been allowed to take off," Metzner told reporters.
Air France, which is a civil plaintiff in the case, has three witnesses to testify that the fire was caused when the Concorde ran over the piece of metal, its lawyer Fernand Garnault said. (Reporting by Sophie Taylor; Editing by Noah Barkin)