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Swissair Tragedy


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Retired firefighter recalls Canada's worst air disaster



Jodie Turner
Lighthouse staff

 COUNTY - Peggy's Cove brought back a flood of memories to people in Gander, Newfoundland.

 Maurice Geange, a retired federal government firefighter, was one of the first men at the scene of Canada's worst air disaster. Passengers and crew numbered 256, mainly American peace keepers, heading home for Christmas. The DC8 crashed minutes after take-off, 7:10 a.m. December 12, 1985.

 Five or six firefighters were approaching the end of their 14-hour shift. They headed for the scene, crossing the Trans-Canada Highway. It was slippery from freezing rain.

 "We went down the hill," he says, "to the bottom where the airplane was stuck. There was a wall of fire - like a forest fire." The officer in charge assigned Mr. Geange and another to take on search and rescue.

 "The quietness up on that hill," he says, "was something. With 250-some on board, you expect to hear something. We never heard a sound."

 As the day wore on, no survivors were found.

 Although some police officers and soldiers would later need help dealing with post traumatic stress, Mr. Geange doesn't believe any firefighters needed long-term assistance. His family was concerned for his welfare, but confident he could handle whatever fate dished out.

 Daughter Connie was 17 at the time. "I remember," she says, "finding out about it very early in the morning. News reports were coming in fast and furious.

 "I remember it being a very dark day. I knew he had been working that night. I knew he'd be one of the people down there.

 "I wondered what's he going through? Is he okay? I knew he could handle it, he'd been through a similar situation with the Czeck air crash September 4, 1967."

 There was no communication between the site and families of the firefighters. Although Connie felt like phoning home every five minutes, she waited until her mother called her at work that afternoon to say her father was safe. The family had supper together before Mr. Geange went back to the airport at 6 p.m.

 "The mood was quiet," she says.

 After hearing about the Swissair disaster late Wednesday night, he recalled that frigid morning in 1985.

 "I thought more of the people left behind than the people that were gone. I heard there were a lot of children on board - it's too bad she couldn't get another five, 10 minutes in the air - she might have made Halifax."

 Mr. Geange responds to some who question why the pilot didn't land in Yarmouth. "I would of chosen Halifax," he says, explaining the international facility has far superior firefighting expertise, equipment and vehicles.

 In 1985, Gander, a town of about 13,000 went into a "state of shock," he says, "losing that many people so close to home.

 "But the town rallied. Helped out where it could by making space for a hell of a lot of media people . . . got together meals. The hotels helped."

 Gander was somewhat isolated from the disaster for two reasons, the crash occurred at the airport and the flight had been chartered by the United States military. Vacant hangars were turned into temporary morgues. Morticians flew the bodies back to the United States for autopsies and identification.

 "Being an airport town," Connie says, "everyone is always aware of the danger. We have a strong military presence and are aware almost on a daily basis that this kind of thing can happen."

 Gander erected a memorial to the crash victims of 1985. "I know," she says, "it has helped a lot of people both from the States and the people here who had a really rough time - that might be a thought for Peggy's Cove."


photo

Shaken area residents, members of the media and firefighters gathered at Bayswater Beach late September 2 all anxiously awaiting word of the reported crash of an airplane just off the coast of the Aspotogan Penninsula. The dismal vigil continued, despite the rain, until word spread that the crash was near Peggy's Cove. The Bayswater command centre for rescue operations shut down around 2 a.m. to relocate to Peggy's Cove. Some fire departments were sent back to their halls and homes, to be replaced by volunteers closer to the crash site.


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