Sunday September 6, 1998

`A comforting, beautiful place'

Families gather at Peggy's Cove for goodbyes

By Beth Johnston -- The Daily News

PEGGY'S COVE - She stood in her long, white dress, arms filled with dozens of long-stemmed, red roses. A baby clung to her.

She staggered as she made her way down the well-worn path to the lighthouse. A man accompanied her, pushing a toddler in a stroller.

The grieving families - more than 500 strong - filed down the path flanked by red barricades to pay homage to the victims of Swissair Flight 111.

The woman went down to the water's edge. She returned, handed the baby to the man, and ran past a barricade toward the ocean.

Counsellors stopped her and brought her back. They formed a circle around her as her knees buckled.

Her pained face a ghostly pallor, she was led into a green army tent, the tent set up for mourners where her visit to Peggy's Cove began.

Stricken family members

A stricken, elderly man was carried by a stretcher to a waiting ambulance, his limbs shaking as he groaned, "My God, my God."

A man, frail with grief and age, collapsed as he climbed the steps to the lighthouse that for millions of tourists is the icon of Nova Scotia.

They had come to see a place they'd only heard of - a place to them that doesn't mean light-hearted holiday snaps, but wrenching pain.

The HMCS Preserver sat faintly visible on the horizon, marking the crash site. The families came in streams across the white rocks, many holding each other up, stumbling on the rocky path. RCMP deployed boats to take wreaths to the site and bring back jars of water for mementos. Some mourn-ers looked through binoculars at the crash site.

Firefighters used safety harnesses to brave the sheer granite shore and toss bouquets in to the waves.

On a bleached granite promontory, mourners stood in tearful and consoling groups, hugging and talking in whispers.

Red Cross volunteers followed them carrying blankets, teddy bears, and boxes of Kleenex. RCMP security had been warned to watch for suicides.

Tethered firemen formed a thin, last line between the mourners and the sea. A stately looking man went down to the water with a red rose. He came back holding just the stem. Many left flowers.

Tim Larson, of East Hartford, Conn., lost his wife's uncle, Victor Rizza, 59, and nephew in the crash. He thanked Swissair, Delta Air Lines, and the people of Halifax for being "tremendously gracious."

"This is such a pretty town," he said, his voice cracking.

Rizza, a Sicilian chemist and world traveler, was flying with his 15-year-old son Antonino. The two had spent five weeks visiting family in Connecticut. He said they planned a reunion in 2000.

Coming to Peggy's Cove gave Larson and other grief-stricken family members "something to hold onto," he said.

At the rocks overlooking the crash site, he said a prayer and tried to take it all in and "bring back as much as he could" for the people who couldn't make it.

Claire Mortimer, who lost her father John and stepmother Hilda in the crash, came from Berkeley, Calif., to see where they died. The retired couple were heading to France for a vacation. John Mortimer was a former vice-president of The New York Times.

`He would've loved this place'

Claire Mortimer said she wanted to talk to the media because he "felt strongly about the need to get information to people .... In an odd way, it's very comforting to me to come here and see this beautiful place. My father died here, he would have loved this place. It's ironic that he died in the ocean that he loved. In some ways it feels like a very logical completion.

She said she was relieved to hear the victims died on impact because she couldn't bear the thought one of them had to watch the other die.

"They died fast," she said, snapping her fingers.

"That, to me, is comforting."

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