Experts hunt for clues to airport cave-in

Experts were poring over the wreckage of the showcase terminal at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport today, in the hunt for clues to the horrific cave-in that killed at least five people.

Experts were poring over the wreckage of the showcase terminal at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport today, in the hunt for clues to the horrific cave-in that killed at least five people.

Yesterday’s collapse as passengers arrived forced authorities to revisit problems that preceded the fanfare opening of Terminal 2E less than a year ago.

A few cracking sounds and some dust preceded the crash as a 98-foot portion of the concrete, steel and glass roof caved in just before 7am local time (6am Irish time).

Three people were injured in the collapse – all policeman called to the scene when signs of trouble appeared, said Michel Clerel, chief doctor of Aeroports de Paris which runs the airport. Officials said there could be a sixth body in the rubble.

Twelve hours after the collapse, only three of the bodies had been removed from the tons of debris, Clerel said. One of the dead was Chinese and all were apparently foreigners.

The victims were probably passengers, said Hubert de Mesnil, director general of Paris airports.

An Air France flight had arrived from Newark, New Jersey, just ahead of the collapse and another from Johannesburg, South Africa. A third plane was taking off for Prague.

Michel Sappin, prefect for the Seine-Saint-Denis region, where Roissy is located north of Paris, said there was only a moderate number of passengers in the terminal at the early hour.

However, police had already moved in to evacuate when signs of an impending disaster appeared.

“A few minutes, or seconds. I don’t know. Witnesses heard a cracking and noticed cracks in the ceiling and saw dust falling,” said Pierre Graff, president of Aeroports de Paris.

“They, of course, ran away. Police arrived and began evacuating people.”

Rene Brun, airport director, said the roof caved in within two to three minutes after the cracks appeared.

Rescue workers compared the pile of twisted steel, boulders of concrete and shattered glass to an earthquake scene. They sent in sniffer dogs in search of victims and were working into the night to remove planks of concrete to remove the dead.

The roof fell on to a waiting area in the futuristic, cylindrical terminal that sits on pylons, pulling down the outer walls and crashing through a boarding ramp and onto several parked cars below.

President Jacques Chirac asked that investigators quickly determine the cause of the collapse on a cool, but sunny day. Two separate probes were being opened.

Transport minister Gilles de Robien said there was nothing to indicate a terrorist attack.

The terminal, a tunnel-shaped construction that is hundreds of yards long, was evacuated and immediately shut down, delaying scores of flights. The terminal mainly serves Air France.

Concerns over the image of Paris’ largest airport were immediately apparent.

“The consequences are obviously grave for us since we have to manage the movement of planes with one less terminal, grave in terms of image since this was our showcase jewel,” said Graff, the Aeroports de Paris chief.

The tragedy comes as France braces for the influx of summer tourists who will pour into Charles de Gaulle airport.

The €881m terminal, with slots for 17 aircraft, opened to the public last June 25 after at least two construction delays. The French television station LCI said the delays were caused by safety issues.

A huge light fixture fell in the departure area as inspectors were checking the area, said Brun, the airport director, confirming press reports.

He said there also were leaks in the ceiling. However, Brun and other officials said the problems were not structural.

“There were never signs of cracks or other major abnormalities,” Brun said.

The terminal was designed for a capacity of 10 million passengers per year. Its distinctive vaulted ceiling is honeycombed with hundreds of square windows that bathe the area inside with sunlight.

“It’s the structure that gave way, the structure itself,” said Mesnil, the director-general of the Paris airports.

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