At 10:31 p.m. on a warm September evening, the lives of thousands of people across the globe were forever changed. Swissair 111 had crashed into the Atlantic Ocean and there were no survivors. Today, 20 years later, we honour the deceased, the would-be rescuers and the compassionate volunteers who helped shoulder the burden of this tragic, sudden loss.
Watching the grieving world
By Tim Krochak, photojournalist
Twenty years have passed since the Swissair 111 crash off Peggys Cove on Sept. 2, 1998.
I spent that entire first evening with a number of other journalists, staring out into that dark blue emptiness, which would be interrupted by a passing search and rescue helicopter, or the greenish hue from the flares that the military aircraft were dropping out over the suspected crash area, kilometres out to sea.
From shore, it seemed the ocean and sky blended into one big, dark, blue mass.
As the evening and early hours progressed, and daylight came, one could see the resources that had arrived. More and more military, police and other emergency teams were dispatched and, at the same time, a massive international media presence was growing to cover this very tragic news story.
The days afterward will stick with me the most.
Busload after busload of literally hundreds of grief-stricken, shattered relatives of the passengers and crew, coming to stare out to sea, trying to make some sense of it. They stood on the same rocks earlier frequented by so many travellers on a pleasant holiday.
Some of them threw flowers into the sea. They huddled, embraced each other and returned to their bus, only to be replaced with more grief-stricken people.
One woman, escorted by Red Cross, handed her infant to one volunteer and tried to throw herself into the sea, but volunteers quickly stopped her and took her into care.
Tim Krochak is a multimedia journalist with The Chronicle Herald, a member of the SaltWire Network.
The heavy cost of comforting
By Rev. A.D. (Bill) Newell, RCMP chaplain
When we got there, we checked into Shearwater and that’s where we stayed, in barracks, and we went down Saturday morning.
We got there and, of course, there was a big crowd of media people from all over the world. Then they started bringing the families in.
Swissair flew all the families in free and there was an understanding between the media and whoever was in charge that they would not approach the families, but if any of the families wanted to talk to them, they could.
And they had it set up with ground search and rescue people, with barricades all around on the rocks, and they basically channeled groups of families down and we, as chaplains, went with them because they were afraid that someone could – in the emotion of the moment – jump off the rocks.
That was a concern, so there were ground search and rescue people who were on tethers to respond if that happened.
We were there to support families and individuals. We were there for support for the people who were searching for remains and families. Whoever needed us, basically.
Some of us over the years have commented that it was a life-changing experience. You couldn’t go through something like that and not be affected by it.
A lot of the Swissair people expressed their gratitude for what we were able to do with them and help them through because, while they were there to support families, they also had to deal with it themselves … these crew who died were their friends and they worked with them and had probably flown with them.
(The memories are) just like pressing the replay button. You can take yourself back to various scenes from down there.
One of those experiences is more than enough in a lifetime. It was pretty traumatic.
Rev. A.D. (Bill) Newell of Yarmouth was one of the RCMP chaplains who helped support people affected by the Swissair crash.
Searching the darkest shores
By Arnold Chase, volunteer, ground search and rescue
I was there for about three days. Our role was to look for and find anything connected to the plane, including human parts.
There were ground search and rescue volunteers from all over Nova Scotia and some from New Brunswick.
As far as I know, a couple people went home because of what they might find after we found a couple of gruesome parts. We didn’t condemn them or anything. Some people can’t handle that, and I don’t blame them. You could come across parts from a kid as well as parts from an adult.
The experience left me sad in a way.
I came across or found an adult human liver – three-quarters of a human liver – and that didn’t bother me as much as when I came across a little stuffed toy, because the liver was from an adult and was about the same size as a deer liver.
I’m an avid deer hunter so that didn’t bother me as much as when we started finding little stuffed animals and stuff that belonged to kids. That was the worst part, for me it was anyway.
Looking back, it doesn’t bother me now. It is just sort of a bad memory, but it was an experience I don’t want to happen again. Those people needed to have help and I was glad I went down there and helped. I’m that type of person that I’d help anybody. If I had to do it again, I would.
Arnold Chase of South Side, Shelburne County, a volunteer with Barrington Ground Search and Rescue, was among those who took part in the Swissair recovery effort.
Haunting memories that linger
By Art Davis, retired chief warrant officer
I don’t talk about the gruesome details that we saw – that’s just sort of something you keep to yourself and bottle up inside yourself and that’s why I had to go reach out for help because keeping it all inside wasn’t a good idea.
I got affected by PTSD over this and I would say a good majority of the people that were involved with Swissair in one way or another also got some form of PTSD, anxiety and depression related to that stuff. I think of it all the time, that’s why I am currently undergoing psychological and psychiatric treatment. It went on for years and eventually I reached out for help on the PTSD issues.
As a senior NCO in charge of a group, you put your leadership skills to the test and put on a strong face.
When you’re into the job, it’s nasty, but it doesn’t really sink in until you actually leave the job. When you’re actually there you focus on what you got to do.
Yes, it was gruesome, but you don’t realize how gruesome it is until to you’re back to your own world and that’s when it slowly, over time, starts to eat at you.
Some people who were there processing the remains said it wasn’t right that those young reservists, some only 17 or 18, were exposed to that, but when you volunteer for the military you just go do it. Some people couldn’t do it and walked away, but I’m sure those who remained had some long-lasting memories and issues.
I met my wife through Swissair. It was one of those things where you get to know each other pretty well. Of course, she is also suffering the effects of PTSD. There are a lot of things she can’t do that I have to do for her because of the fears and phobias that came with it … we sort of help each other through it.
Retired Chief Warrant Officer Arthur Davis was a sergeant in the medical unit at CFB Shearwater. In the aftermath of the crash, during the body recovery and identification process, he was assigned to supervise a group of reserve medics from Sydney and Halifax. Originally from Newfoundland, Davis retired two years ago after serving for nearly four decades. He now resides in Sydney and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The most surreal scene
By Brad Works, journalist
It seemed odd to me that they’d rented a U-Haul.
I stood watching as the Mounties and members of the military carried black bags that were arriving on the small boats coming and going from the dock. They placed them into the back of the white cube van with U-Haul’s distinct orange strip down the side.
I don’t remember how long we stood there; there was a lot of waiting.
It was still relatively quiet as the real work was being done about eight kilometres offshore by the search teams at the head of St. Margarets Bay. The swarm of international media that was to come hadn’t yet arrived.
On the wharf, had it not been for their uniforms, one could have mistaken the activity as fishermen gathering up the garbage after a day at sea – the random bursts of camera shutters and the occasional whirr of Sea King blades in the distance acted as reminders that that wasn’t the case.
Offshore, beyond where the iconic Peggys Cove lighthouse stood guard, searchers scoured the ocean for life and evidence of what had happened to Swissair 111 the night before. The contents being loaded into the van were all that remained of the 229 lives on board.
Eventually, someone secured passage for a handful of journalists on a local fishing boat that was heading out to the debris field.
The boat was full but not crowded. Aside from the captain and a couple of his friends, journalists – most “from away” – were the passengers.
On board I interviewed a local man about the crash.
“I heard a funny rumble,” Bob Connors explained. He thought it was a thunderstorm passing near his East Dover home.
At first the sea offered nothing out of the ordinary. Then there were bits and pieces. Small debris floating on the surface, mostly unrecognizable – paper and plastics, I suppose. The first thing I thought I could recognize was what looked maybe like a foam shoulder pad, perhaps from a woman’s blouse. Maybe not. You knew the fragments had belonged to someone. They bobbed in the black waves.
I didn’t see much after that – except the bottom of the bucket that the captain kicked my way when he saw my face suddenly turn green.
I really didn’t need to see any more. I’d seen enough.
Brad Works is managing editor if the Journal Pioneer in Summerside, P.E.I., a member of the SaltWire Network. He has spent most of the past 21 years as a journalist at newspapers in Truro, Amherst, New Glasgow and Shelburne, N.S.
Sea shells and graduation gifts
By Desmond Dillon, Red Cross volunteer
As a volunteer with the Canadian Red Cross, I was assigned to Peggy’s Cove to provide support to victims’ families arriving to visit the crash site and to say goodbye to their loved ones.
During my three weeks there, the relatives arrived daily, wanting to go down to the seaside to place flowers and wreaths along the shore and into the sea.
I remember these difficult moments as the reality of their loss began to set in.
For some, the grieving process at seaside took a short time but for others it was hours and days. Some put their flowers in the water and walked away in tears; others sat staring straight out at the recovery site, sobbing for extended periods. Some family members became distraught and wanted to jump in the water to be near their loved ones.
I saw wives and children grieving for husbands and fathers, and parents grieving for their daughter or son. Everyone had a story to tell. As volunteers, our role was to listen.
One lady confided that she was to be married in six weeks and her fiancé was on that plane. She sat at the seaside writing messages on seashells and placing them in the water. This was her way of saying goodbye.
One father and mother told me that they had given this trip to their son as a graduation gift.
A large number of people came together during this tragedy to help, especially the residents of Peggy’s Cove and surrounding communities. These people provided food and other essentials to the relatives and volunteers.
It was a difficult time for all who participated in the recovery mission, including the fishermen of the area. What those people experienced and saw during this time I’m sure will be etched in their memories.
After 20 years, my time at Peggy’s Cove is still vivid in my mind. It was a very sad experience, but I take some comfort in knowing that I may have helped the families in their time of grieving, by listening to their pain.
Desmond Dillon was a Red Cross volunteer at the time of the Swissair crash. He lives in Gander, N.L.
The lasting effects of the unimaginable
Dr. Trevor Jain, emergency physician
I remember vividly the call I got in the early morning in September 1998.
I was in my last year of medical school. I was informed by the duty officer from Brigade Headquarters that an airliner had crashed and I was to report to Hanger B at Shearwater, immediately.
The RCMP gave me a lift over after I quickly put on my uniform. I was asked by the chief medical examiner to get a morgue up and running and became the pathology operations officer. I sketched out a diagram remembering what I needed for supplies to do autopsies from the time I was a pathology assistant prior to medical school.
The first autopsy I will never forget.
The amount of trauma the people on the airplane suffered was nothing like I had ever seen.
My team did the autopsies on the babies on the flight. These were the most traumatizing and emotionally taxing. I remember asking them to leave the autopsy suite and conducting them on my own.
The bond I formed with the team was strong and developed while working 12 to 16 hours a day for weeks until everyone was identified.
I only have been back to Peggy’s Cove once since that time.
Only recently did I return to Hanger B at Shearwater, close to 20 years after leaving the building. I don’t plan to revisit.
I was asked how it changed me. It is hard for me to describe. I believe it made me better at my profession. It made me stronger but more reflective.
I developed a keen interest in disaster medicine and subsequently became a specialist in this area.
I still occasionally smell JP4 jet fuel intermittently for no reason.
I don’t like flying over water.
Sometimes when I go to shake a hand I will start a mental dictation of what the hand looks like.
I don’t like crowds for long periods of time but enjoy talking to people and hearing about their life experiences.
It has made me appreciate life more.
Dr. Trevor Jain is an emergency physician at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown, P.E.I. He is the program director for the bachelor of science in paramedicine program at the University of Prince Edward Island as well as medical director for paramedicine programs at Holland College. He is currently deployed on OP IMPACT as a trauma team leader overseas. He received the Meritorious Service Medal (military division) from the governor general in 1999 for his work on Swissair. He was awarded the Order of Military Merit (officer level) this year for his outstanding military service career. He wrote about his Swissair experience in the book Everyday Heroes by Jody Mitic.
The quest for cause and closure
By Gil Dares, former RCMP officer and volunteer
I was a team leader on the heavy lift operation, which was offshore, and so we worked in 12-hour shifts from a barge.
As a team leader, my concerns were the safety and well-being of my team and also with the integrity of the operation. I had to be cognizant at all times that this was a very difficult situation for everybody involved.
Obviously, we wanted to preserve and find the evidence that would lead to why the crash occurred in the first place, but we were always aware of the fact that we had to bring closure to the families of 229 victims, and that they deserved an answer as to how their loved ones had died.
One of the things we wanted to do, too, was recover any personal effects. (For example) there was a wedding album. That was one of the things that, I think, really affected some members of the team, especially one particular member who just, the day after the crash, had left for his honeymoon.
I remember a year later in Sheet Harbour (as part of the crash investigation), one of the things that was found was a wedding ring with an engraved inscription and I can only imagine how valuable that would be to the spouse that was left behind, to have something tangible to remember her loved one by.
We also had to be aware that there were people on board from a variety of religions and, in some of the religions, they needed human remains, and so it was important to them because that was the only way that they could find closure.
The men and women on-site were very dedicated to the task. Each and every one of them seemed to easily identify with the importance of what we were doing. And it wasn’t just RCMP members. There were RCMP, military, firefighters, city police officers. It was quite a variety.
The other thing was the camaraderie, the moral support they offered each other, so we drew strength from each other.
Nobody needs more than one plane crash in their career.
Gil Dares of Yarmouth was an RCMP officer with the Mounties’ Yarmouth town detachment when he volunteered with the recovery effort after the Swissair crash.
How tragedy united us near and far
By Jodi Drake, novelist
I’ve been asked many times what that day was like, and every time I feel that unwanted heaviness that smothers my chest.
On Sept. 2, at 10:20 p.m., I was tucked into bed trying to get to sleep, I was filled with excitement after my second day back at school and was happy to know who was in my class and that I had Mr. Thorne for a homeroom teacher. Mostly I couldn’t stop thinking about my birthday. Tomorrow I would turn 14 and I was excited about my party on Saturday. I could never have known the chaos that was happening in the air above me.
I’m not sure exactly when, but only a short time later the haunting bursts of sound started to fill the night sky -- boom, boom, boom. Later I was told it was the sound of the flares used to light up the sea to see if they could spot people in the water below. I went downstairs to find my parents out on the deck and I asked my dad what was happening. He told me something had to have happened out on the bay but he didn’t know what it was.
The sound of all the helicopters sweeping along the bay one after another after another lasted through the night.
Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to wake up and be told a plane had crashed off Peggys Cove, that 229 people were aboard, and that we didn’t know if anyone had survived. Peggys Cove rocks are notorious, and the sea in the area unforgiving. I loved climbing there but like all kids in the area, I knew better than to go anywhere near the black rocks. I couldn’t imagine trying to swim in the dark on the other side of those rocks.
That morning the area was dominated by fire trucks, ambulances and helicopters. News stations were set up all along the roads trying to deliver any shred of hope to the loved ones that watched.
To say it was sad doesn’t even come close to describing it, no, there was a heavy layer of devastation that blanketed our community. It was all everyone talked about all day at school. My birthday party came and went and all I remember about it was I got a Titanic calendar and the Titanic movie. I loved that movie but I wondered if it would always bring back memories of what had happened in the bay on that day.
In true Maritime fashion my wonderful community wiped their tears and got to work doing whatever they could to help the victims’ families as they started to arrive.
Many, including my family, made endless sandwiches, gathered blankets, pillows, offered our home to anyone who needed it, and not just for the families but for the mentally scarred workers who spent countless hours collecting body parts and tagging them for identification. My aunt was one of those; to this day I’m not sure how she coped.
In the days that followed people were finding items from the crash along the shore. One of the families on our road found a child’s shoe. That shoe haunted my dreams for a long time.
With such sorrow and heavy hearts, stories began to be told about the families; as a girl of only 14, I couldn’t imagine how those people could go on without those they lost in that crash.
Several months later, some of the heaviness started to lift. We were told that the victims’ families wanted to return the love we had showed them. They gave a group of local kids a chance to visit with them for two weeks. I was lucky to be chosen and went to Switzerland to stay with a lovely family who had lost their uncle.
They treated us like we were their own and we travelled to famous places and at night we got to hear all the wonderful stories of the ones they lost. They were such warm people and I realized that no matter how far away you go there are families just like your own with moms and dads and kids and grandparents who go to school and to work just like we do. They love their family and their lives just like we do and it could have been the other way around. That plane could have held our families instead of theirs, it could have crashed in Switzerland instead of St. Margarets Bay. To this day, I hold Swissair 111 dear to my heart. It affected me my whole life and if any of the families read this article please know, you and those you loved will never be forgotten.
Novelist Jodi Drake was born and raised in Nova Scotia. She currently lives in California with her husband and two children.