Re­mem­ber­ing Swis­sair Flight 111

A dis­as­ter that brought our hu­man­ity into sharp fo­cus

South Shore Breaker - - LOCAL - THE CHRON­I­CLE HER­ALD editor@southshore­breaker.ca

Now and again, some­thing hap­pens to re­mind us that we’re part of a larger world, that we in At­lantic Canada can­not hold our­selves apart just be­cause we oc­cupy this lit­tle af­ter­thought of a re­gion stick­ing out into the North At­lantic.

For many of us, that epiphany was 9-11, when thou­sands of be­wil­dered vis­i­tors shut out of U.S. airspace in the wake of the largest ter­ror­ist at­tack in his­tory were forced down into our air­ports, mostly Hal­i­fax and Gan­der, for sev­eral days.

As we watched those hor­ri­ble im­ages on our TV screens, we in­stinc­tively rushed in to care for total strangers as though they were our own. Be­cause that’s what you do in a cri­sis.

Many more of us were more di­rectly af­fected by an­other air­line tragedy, this one even closer to home.

For at about 9:30 p.m. on

Sept. 2, 1998, Swis­sair 111, its cabin chok­ing with smoke from an elec­tri­cal fire, its pi­lots des­per­ately dump­ing fuel and try­ing to pre­pare for an emer­gency land­ing at Hal­i­fax’s air­port, crashed into St. Mar­garets Bay, shat­ter­ing into mil­lions of pieces and killing 229 peo­ple in­stantly.

We’re all fa­mil­iar with the events of the next week or so, as boats and air­craft scoured the ocean in the for­lorn hope of find­ing sur­vivors, then in the grim task of gath­er­ing de­bris and body parts. Then, the vic­tims’ fam­i­lies be­gan ar­riv­ing in a sad pil­grim­age from all over the world to be­gin pro­cess­ing their grief.

To say it changed us is trite, but it’s true. The very sym­bol of Canada’s Ocean Play­ground, Peggy’s Cove, be­came a lit­eral me­mo­rial for thou­sands of fam­ily mem­bers of those lost in the crash. They still re­turn from time to time to pay their re­spects at the crash me­mo­rial, lo­cated just down the road from the fa­mous vil­lage.

And many of us can’t for­get what we saw.

On this 20th an­niver­sary of the crash, we’ve cho­sen to com­mem­o­rate this ter­ri­ble event by fo­cus­ing on those mem­o­ries. So we asked some of the peo­ple who re­sponded that night and in the days fol­low­ing to tell us what they re­mem­ber.

For Chron­i­cle Her­ald pho­tog­ra­pher Tim Krochak, it was the way the ocean and sky blended to­gether into a dark blue mass in­ter­rupted by cir­cling he­li­copters. For RCMP of­fi­cer Gil Dares, it was a wed­ding band with an in­scrip­tion found a year later among the de­bris.

For Dr. Trevor Jain, it was the au­top­sies he per­formed on the ba­bies who were on the flight. Every once in a while, he smells jet fuel for no par­tic­u­lar rea­son.

For Red Cross vol­un­teer Des­mond Dil­lon, it was wit­ness­ing fam­ily mem­bers on the rocks at Peggy’s Cove star­ing for hours out at the re­cov­ery site.

For chap­lain Bill Newell, re­mem­ber­ing is “just like press­ing the re­play but­ton.”

For many vol­un­teers, it meant con­sol­ing fam­ily mem­bers for days and then deal­ing with the dam­age to their own psy­ches for years af­ter­ward.

The rest of us con­tend with a lin­ger­ing sad­ness, a feel­ing that it’s hard to be­lieve it hap­pened, that it’s been 20 years, even though it seems like yes­ter­day.

We shouldn’t for­get. We should hon­our those who lost their lives that night along­side the would-be rescuers who scoured the waters in vain for sur­vivors and those who helped their loved ones shoul­der the bur­den of sud­den loss.

We should also re­mem­ber that it’s pos­si­ble to com­fort peo­ple in the most ex­treme grief, even if you’ve never met them be­fore. Tragedies like Swis­sair 111 both tear us apart in­side and bring us to­gether.

Her­ald archive

Vis­i­tors cir­cle the mon­u­ment ded­i­cated to the 229 vic­tims of Swis­sair 111 near Peggy’s Cove. The crash site was eight kilo­me­tres from the shore, near the en­trance of St. Mar­garets Bay.

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