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Swissair Tragedy

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EMO operations mobilize in Chester

Mark Roberts
Lighthouse staff

 CHESTER - The Chester Municipal Emergency Measures Organization (EMO) mobilized early September 2, although, sadly, little could be done from the Chester-based command centre to help the victims of Swissair Flight 111.

 Chester Municipal Warden Allan Webber - a member of the EMO committee - says, "There was a general feeling of helplessness because there wasn't a whole lot we could do. You wanted to do something."

 He continues, "We've had mock emergencies but this was the first time we had to activate the committee for an actual emergency. It was a pretty tragic way to learn some lessons. In general terms, it operated as it should."

 Warden Webber says he received a telephone call from Bruce Forest, another committee member and an employee of the Municipality of Chester, at approximately 10:30 p.m. At that time, he says, all they knew was a Swissair jet had crashed, or was about to crash, near the Blandford region. "I was at the Chester Basin Legion involved in a shuffleboard game. My initial reaction was disbelief. It's the last thing you'd expect here. You don't expect it in your own backyard."

 He telephoned Deputy Warden John Chataway and committee members met at the designated EMO Co-ordination Centre upstairs in the Chester Municipal building.

 Municipal employees and committee members Barry Lenihan and Mary Eldridge were already at the centre, he says, and Chester RCMP detachment NCO Sgt. Rod Douthwright, RCMP auxiliary constable Kelvin Swinimer and Chester Fire Department committee member Brent Haase soon followed. After a short briefing, Sgt. Douthwright left for Bayswater.

 In addition to the EMO radio equipment situated at the centre, portable systems were brought in by RCMP and fire department officials.

 Warden Webber says the committee reviewed the EMO manual and members began telephoning a prearranged, "extensive list" of contact names. Many had already been contacted, he says. "Essentially, after that, we spent the remainder of the evening monitoring the emergency. Our role is not to interfere with the operation but to provide first responders with assistance as needed, but we didn't receive any calls of that nature."

 For example, he says, if survivors or bodies had been located in the waters near the Municipality of Chester, or on land, they may have been required to set up temporary shelters or morgues. Potentially, he says, they could have declared an official state of emergency to speed up the process.

 At one point in the evening, he says, they received reports that survivors were found. "You were feeling pretty good about that then the next thing you know they're moving to Peggy's Cove and there are no survivors."

 They monitored the disaster until approximately 2:30 a.m. At that time, local fire departments were told to "stand down" and the command centre moved from Bayswater to Peggy's Cove.

 Warden Webber says the lessons learned were minor. "It became apparent the best line of communication was radio and television which we didn't have. That will never happen again." He adds the organization needs to obtain better charts of the ocean waters and islands off the municipality.

 Overall, however, he says, "I would like to say thank-you to the fire service and RCMP in particular for the level of co-operation we got from them. I think they were ready to do what had to be done and we're pretty lucky to have them. I also want to thank all those involved in the response and express my deepest sympathy to the families of the victims."

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