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Swissair Tragedy

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Coming together in grief

Lisa Brown
Lighthouse staff

 INDIAN HARBOUR - Last Wednesday's memorial service for Swissair Flight 111 in Indian Harbour was a sharing of grief and a coming together in sorrow.

 First came the community, the people who have provided support in countless ways since the tragedy, while at the same time reeling in shock that it happened right here at home. Hundreds of people - from search and rescue volunteers in orange overalls to boy scouts and air crews in uniforms, from members of the military of different ranks to ordinary citizens - they arrived in buses to pack the ball field at St. Margarets Bay school, many standing when there weren't enough chairs.

 Next came the families, a few carrying small bouquets of flowers, many carrying a single red rose or white carnation. They arrived in charter buses and walked along the carpet laid across the field, a path flanked on one side by a row of military and hundreds of people standing four and five deep who had come to pay their respects.

 Then came those taking part in the service, a long string of men and women who were part of a choir, followed by religious leaders of all denominations come to offer assurances and prayers.

 Next came the children of St. Margarets Bay school, from the largest to the smallest, many wearing white shirts and dark pants. Their youthful faces were a poignant reminder that there will be a future tomorrow despite the tragedies of today.

 A traditional Mi'kmaq welcoming ceremony filled the air, the chant of a single female voice to the beat of a lone drum echoing over the crowd and beyond. That was followed by a poem sung to send people to the next world.

 Finally came the dignitaries, among them Prime Minister Jean Chretien and his wife, Swiss president Flavio Cotti, the U.S. ambassador to Canada and Premier Russell MacLellan. Other now-familiar faces included the president of Swissair and the chief accident investigator with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

 Rev. Richard Walsh welcomed everyone to St. Margarets Bay and local communities saying he wished they'd all come for a happier reason.

 "Each and every person who lives here wishes we could turn back the clock and change things," he said. "To the families of the victims, I can only say that your loved ones are spiritually part of our community. We will never forget them. We will always remember."

 Rev. Walsh mentioned the different groups who assisted with the disaster, saying he was proud of all they'd done in their many different ways.

 "We are Nova Scotians and Maritimers. This is the way we respond to a need," he said. "Perhaps it's because we live near and by the sea that when tragedy strikes, as it must by the ocean, we draw together and help. It's in our blood and in our make-up as people."

 The children of St. Margarets Bay, who started their school year the morning after Swissair Flight 111 crashed off the coast September 2, sang for the gathering. Even the smallest students in front seemed to somehow understand the importance of their task, their faces earnest as they delivered their message.

 "Lean on me, when you're not strong. I'll be your friend, I'll help you carry on. For, it won't be long, 'Til I'm gonna need somebody to lean on."

 Two students emerged from the seating area to lay a wreath at the base of the stage. A tiny girl toddled to the front to get closer to the singers, then returned to her mother seated in the front row of grieving family members as they finished their song. The younger students paraded off the stage and headed for the school, their job complete, their message sent.

 Another prayer, a hymn, and two women began to read the list of passengers and crew who died. Another wreath was laid by two members of the clergy as the hurting loved ones listened to the litany of names that went on for more than 10 minutes. Some sat quietly choking back tears, some held each other, some just stared ahead seemingly lost in their own pain. Many wore sunglasses trying to hide their anguish from a world suddenly focused on them.

 The dignitaries sat stoically, following the list in their programs. Even some members of the military stationed along the entry path to the tents read along with the list. When it finally ended, the crowd seemed to collectively sigh in relief.

 Rev. Mark Marshall offered prayers for the victims' families and friends, asking that those who died go on living in the hearts, minds and consciouses of those who loved them.

 "We pray that nothing truly good in each one's life will be lost, but will be of benefit to the world; that all that was important to each one will be respected by those who follow; that everything in which each one was great will continue to mean much now that they are dead," he said.

 Father Lloyd O'Neill prayed for the rescue workers, speaking of the RCMP, the military, the firefighters, members of Fisheries and Oceans, pathology and medical personnel. Rev. Peter Metcalf continued those prayers.

 "Something tragic has happened. In an instant, lives have been lost and other lives have been changed forever," Rev. Metcalf said.

 "If there is anything positive to be drawn out of an experience like this, perhaps it is the public response that has occurred to this tragedy, both on a worldwide basis and right here in the communities surrounding Peggy's Cove. It has been said that humanity is at its best when things are at their worst and we certainly saw evidence of that during the past week."

 The choir sang another hymn and more prayers were offered by denominations not often thought of along the South Shore. A priest read Psalm 46.

 As Father Duncan MacMaster gave the homily, many of the families who had appeared dazed and detached in their grief during much of the service seemed to draw strength or comfort, their eyes focused on him as he spoke.

 "Everyone who died in this tragedy had dreams and hopes and ambitions. These are yours to cherish," he said. "Some you'll be able to complete, others you'll be able to pass on to the young people in your family."

 Father MacMaster urged those in pain to turn to their own faiths and religious leaders for guidance, but to remember that they can always return to the scene of their loss for support.

 "We want you to know that you are always welcome in our community. If you identify yourselves in the future as a member of the grieving community, we will share with you," he said. "The willingness to help and to give of ourselves during this tragedy will not be without cost. Many of us are hurting now. We have needs to talk and to heal and to become ourselves again. It is not a case of forgetting - it's a case of healing so that we can remember."

 As the damp chill of evening descended on the gathering, a member of the Prime Minister's staff escorted one of the family members to the stage. Claire Mortimer hadn't been scheduled on the program, but had obviously made arrangements to speak on behalf of the families. She lost her father and stepmother in the crash and wanted to thank Canadians for making the grief-stricken feel cared for and loved.

 "I most especially wish to thank today the people of these local communities who got out of bed on the terrible night of September 2, those of you who without thinking put on your boots and grabbed flashlights and got in your boats and went out into the night immediately to start searching for our loved ones. And you continue to work day and night," Ms Mortimer said.

 "Your grace and your generosity and your compassion mean so much to us. Your sacrifices have not gone unnoticed. Your outpouring of help will never be forgotten."

 All eyes watched as a Search and Rescue helicopter flew directly over the gathering and out over the ocean, looped around and dropped a wreath from the people of Canada into the waters of St. Margarets Bay in memory of those who died on Swissair Flight 111.

 Between the second and third shots of the gun salute that followed, the vapour trail of a jet flying out across the Atlantic was visible in the evening sky. The trail dissipated to the heartbreaking sound of the Lone Piper Lament.

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