New cracking forces evacuation at Paris airport

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

ROISSY, France -- New cracking sounds forced the evacuation Monday of the futuristic terminal at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport a day after a roof collapse killed four travelers.

The scare came as officials said they were considering scrapping the entire Air France Terminal 2E after a 98-foot section of the steel, concrete and glass roof caved in Sunday. The terminal is closed indefinitely.

More than 30 people in airport offices and a nearby restaurant were evacuated Monday when the new cracking sounds were heard and fissures appeared, airport director Rene Brun said. Airport staff will not be allowed back inside until an investigation is completed, Brun said.

The area evacuated Monday is a separate structure from the tube-shaped boarding and waiting area where the roof partially collapsed. It is joined by walkways.

A third structure in the complex is reserved for checking in.

"Faced with such doubt, we weren't taking any risks until we receive an external analysis," Rene Brun, director of Charles de Gaulle airport, said of Monday's evacuation.

Officials worked to reroute flights to other terminals after the collapse and shutdown erased 15 percent of the airport's capacity.

"Our worry the first day was to treat the victims," Brun told reporters. "Today, we're looking at the question of traffic ... It's going to be more difficult this June" -- the airport's busiest month.

Authorities initially believed five people were killed in the collapse after sniffer dogs led searchers to mistakenly count an extra victim in the wreckage, but later lowered the death toll. China said two of its nationals were among the dead. The nationalities of the other victims was not made public.

Airport executives faced new questions about the terminal's structure and design. Its architect, Paul Andreu, rushed to France from work on an opera house in Beijing to view the damage.

Hubert Fontanel, who oversaw construction at 2E, said slight fissures were common in many buildings and design plans had been double-checked by outside experts.

"Fissures have turned up on some posts that were not in the area concerned by the catastrophe," he said.

The building, which had been praised for innovations in design and comfort, could be razed if it cannot be made safe, the head of the airport authority, Pierre Graff, was quoted as saying Monday.

"If all these rings that make up this terminal are beyond repair, we'll tear it all down, of course," Graff told Le Parisien daily, referring to steel rings that gird the elongated, tubular building. "We will take no risks when it comes to safety."

After at least two construction delays, the $890 million terminal began operating last June with slots for 17 planes and capacity for 10 million passengers a year.

The roof fell onto a waiting area that sits on pylons, pulling down outer walls and crashing through a boarding ramp and onto parked cars.

Three people were slightly injured, all police officers or security personnel.

One theory under investigation is that the ground on which the terminal was built had shifted, according to LCI television.

Two investigations, administrative and judicial, were under way, and experts from some of the 400 companies that took part in construction went to the scene.

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, touring the scene Monday, said investigations "will bring out the truth."

"We are all touched by the cruelty of this collapse," he said.

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