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Swissair Tragedy

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World comes crashing down in Nova Scotia

Lisa Brown
Lighthouse staff

 PEGGY'S COVE - The South Shore continues to reel in shock with the rest of the world after 229 people were killed late September 2 in the crash of Swissair Flight 111 off Peggy's Cove.

 It was the second worst air disaster in Canadian history. There were no survivors among the 215 passengers and 14 crew members en route from New York to Geneva.

 The flight took off from JFK International Airport at 9:18 p.m. local time. It carried a Saudi Arabian prince, well-known scientists, a renowned AIDS activist, United Nations officials, newlyweds, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters.

 The plane, a three-engine McDonnell Douglas MD-11, was travelling at 33,000 feet approximately over Liverpool at 10:22 p.m. when the crew notified air traffic control in Moncton that there was smoke in its cockpit. Captain Urs Zimmermann and First Officer Stephan Loew requested an unscheduled landing suggesting Boston, but were diverted to Halifax because it was closer, only 70 nautical miles compared to 300.

 According to air traffic control recordings released Saturday by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, when the crew learned a few minutes later that it was only 30 miles to the runway, they said they needed more distance. The plane was still travelling at between 15,000 and 18,000 feet.

 Flight 111 turned toward the north, then announced that it needed to dump fuel before it could land. The MD-11 has a maximum landing weight of 200,000 tonnes and the plane at that point weighed 230,000 tonnes due to the additional fuel needed to get to Europe.

 With directions from air traffic control, Flight 111 continued its turn and headed south over St. Margarets Bay preparing to dump fuel. At 10:24 p.m. the crew radioed: "we are declaring an emergency. . . . we have to land immediately."

 That was the last communication from Flight 111. Radar tracked the aircraft for a further six minutes as it turned toward the west, then completed a 360 degree orbit into a southeast direction and disappeared.

 Residents along the South Shore as far away as Hebbville reported hearing a low-flying aircraft followed by a bang. Some people on the Aspotogan Peninsula said a crash shook their homes around 10:30 p.m.

 Local fishermen were the first to take to the water to search for the downed passenger plane, quickly followed by the RCMP, Coast Guard, military ships and aircraft. The search continued until debris was located about eight kilometres southwest of Peggy's Cove, a few kilometres off East Ironbound around 12:30 a.m Thursday.

 Despite a huge-scale rescue operation that went on through the remainder of that early morning, day, night and into the next day, by Friday officials said all hope of finding survivors was gone. Swissair had already announced Thursday that no one lived through the disaster, but rescue officials now agreed.

 Focus switched from search and rescue to search and recovery as more Navy and Coast Guard vessels moved in to help recover debris and remains. The RCMP began calling the area a crime scene and the Coast Guard imposed a no shipping and no fly zone from Mahone Bay to Chebucto Head.

 The last numbers released indicated that 60 bodies had been recovered, but officials refused to say any more citing humanitarian reasons and difficulties with identification. Almost from the time crash debris was first discovered early Thursday morning, reports from fishermen and searchers indicated that body parts were found scattered among small bits of debris covering over 700 square kilometres of the Atlantic and washed up along the coast. The largest piece of the wreckage found by Saturday was no bigger than a car roof.

The investigation

 With the changed focus of what is being called Operation Persistence, additional vessels and searchers were called in. Over the weekend, nine Navy and five Coast Guard vessels led by HMCS Preserver were in the St. Margarets Bay area. Over 1,500 soldiers, sailors and airmen were involved in the recovery effort, along with the RCMP, other government agencies and volunteers including local Ground Search and Rescue teams. Hundreds of other volunteers provided everything from grief counselling to boxed lunches.

 While the RCMP continued to sift through boxes of collected debris taken to CFB Shearwater, analyzing everything for evidence of a bomb, officials said there was no indication the crash resulted from terrorism.

 That finding was echoed by the province's chief medical examiner, Dr. John Butt, who is overseeing efforts to identify the victims of Flight 111. At a news conference Friday, Dr. Butt said the remains collected to date indicate impact injuries - not drowning, toxic fumes or an explosion - caused the deaths. Only one body, that of a French woman, has been identified.

 Vic Gerden, the chief accident investigator heading up a team of 40 investigators from the Transportation Safety Board along with additional representatives from the United States, Switzerland and other countries, said Saturday the cause of the accident won't be known for some time.

 Investigators are looking into all aspects of the crash, reviewing information on aircraft specifications and maintenance along with human performance by the crew and all those associated with Flight 111. But it is information gleaned from the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder, the famous black boxes, that will help investigators the most.

 The flight data recorder, which maintains records of more than 100 parameters associated with the plane's operation, was recovered Sunday afternoon and flown to a Transportation Safety Board lab in Ottawa. But Mr. Gerden announced Monday that it stopped recording at 10,000 feet giving no information about the last six minutes of Flight 111. Experts say that would imply that the plane suffered electrical failure.

 The Navy submarine HMCS Okanagan detected the signal from the cockpit voice recorder Monday and divers attempted to locate it. Those efforts were expected to continue Tuesday, but officials admitted electrical failure on the aircraft could have caused that black box to stop recording as well.

 Investigators believe the pilots were wearing oxygen masks based on the recordings from the air traffic control centre, but know little else about the plane's situation at this point.

 "We really don't have enough information to determine the conditions inside the cockpit of the airplane. Really, we don't know what density of smoke, what amount of smoke," Mr. Gerden said over the weekend.

 But he defended the pilot's decision to turn away from the airport, despite being only 30 nautical miles away, because the plane was still too high and too heavy with fuel.

 "It was certainly a difficult situation to contend with," the chief investigator said. "If one attempts to land an aircraft at a weight that is greater than the maximum landing weight . . . there is a risk that having landed the aircraft it would go off the end at the other end of the runway at some unknown rate of speed and cause damage."

 In another major development Sunday, officials announced that three large pieces believed to be part of the aircraft's fuselage were located in 50 metres of water near the suspected crash site. They are not sitting in a straight line and are spread over quite an area.

 "Some of them are squashed. It's in very poor shape, but it is visible and it looks like an aircraft fuselage," Navy Captain Phil Webster said.

 The salvage rescue ship USS Grapple is on its way from Philadelphia to lift those sections of the aircraft. Used to recover sections of the TWA flight that crashed near New York in July 1996, that vessel is expected to arrive here Wednesday. Some of her crew have already flown in to be fully briefed beforehand so lift operations can begin at once.

 But experts said Monday that before that can happen, a number of bodies believed to still be strapped in their seats, will have to be recovered.

The families

 Swissair's response to the tragedy was immediate last week. In addition to being the first to announce that there were no survivors, the company quickly offered to fly family members of Flight 111's passengers and crew to Nova Scotia to view the crash scene. Delta Airlines, which had 53 passengers and one flight attendant on board the plane as a shared flight, echoed the offer.

 The first Swissair airbus carrying family of the victims touched down at Halifax International Friday afternoon. That same day, some family members made their first pilgrimage to Peggy's Cove. It was a scene that was repeated again and again over the weekend as charter buses took grieving families, about 900 people in total, to the normally-thriving tourist destination turned search command centre.

 They brought flowers and teddy bears. They stood on the rocks and looked out to sea. Some wept and some prayed. Some took bottles of water away from the Atlantic as memories of loved ones claimed in the crash. A few bought postcards of the famous lighthouse which had become a beacon of the tragedy.

 Away from Peggy's Cove, the families co-operated with the investigation. They identified personal belongings gathered in the salvage operation and gave DNA samples for matching with victims' remains.

 Officials continued to promise that the search wouldn't end until all hope of finding their loved ones was gone.

 "We will not spare any efforts or time to find all of the bodies or remains," RCMP spokesman Sgt. Andre Guertin said in a news conference Saturday. "We are resolved to continue until we are satisfied we have everything."

 Two Canadians were among those that died aboard Flight 111. Yves de Roussan was a Geneva-based European advisor for UNICEF from Montreal. He was 41 and left behind a wife and three children. George Abady, 24, from Toronto was on his way to Geneva to attend a hotel management conference.

 The list of passengers by country of residence included 136 Americans, 30 French, 28 Swiss, six British, three Germans, three Italians, two Greeks and one each from Saudi Arabia, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iran, Spain, St. Kitts and Russia.

 One of the flight attendants was on her first flight. Captain Zimmermann would have celebrated his 50th birthday Saturday.


A man's shoe floats by in the middle of a massive debris field off Ironbound and Pearl Island last week. The search effort for survivors was massive, involving fishermen, the Coast Guard auxiliary, the military, ground and ship-based aircraft, the Coast Guard and even a tugboat and cruse ship.

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