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Swissair Tragedy

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Blandford firefighters first to respond after report of downed passenger jet

Mark Roberts
Lighthouse staff

 BLANDFORD - Firefighters from the tiny, but efficient, Blandford Fire Department were the first to respond to the Swissair jet tragedy.

 Chief Philip Publicover, who was appointed Fire Incident Commander during the initial search, said in an interview last week he expected such a disaster at some point in his life. "All you have to do is look up at night. It had to happen some day in Nova Scotia. I had it in the back of my mind here it is."

 The call came in at 10:46 p.m. Firefighters were on the road within six minutes, Chief Publicover said, having determined the jet may have crashed near Northwest or Southwest Cove.

 Southwest Cove was quickly ruled out. Although much of the debris was later found off Ironbound and Pearl Island, Chief Publicover said, at that point, no one knew whether the jet had crashed on land or at sea.

 Chief Publicover said firefighters knew what they were doing. "We headed towards Northwest Cove and approximately halfway there we were told to go to Northwest Cove." Firefighters met numerous ambulances and RCMP vehicles on the way. Chief Publicover also called in neighbouring mutual aid fire departments, asking for extra fire-dampening foam.

 Local fishermen, Chief Publicover said, generously donated use of three boats to the department. Firefighters from Hubbards and Black Point were on board for what was the official start of the long ocean search. The Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary Maritimes was dispatched at approximately the same time.

 Emergency crews from various organizations dispatched by Emergency Health Services Nova Scotia as well as the media began to hit the area in droves.

 At this point, Chief Publicover said, "We repositioned ourselves at Bayswater due to its physical size because of the expected onslaught of people."

 Chief Publicover added emergency crews and the media are necessary. His words were less kind, however, for those people who travelled to the region just to catch a glimpse of human misery. "People came out for the grand circus. It impeded emergency services with the heavy volume of traffic from outside areas."

 For example, he said, a loaded pick-up truck from Mill Cove was seen in the area. Also, he said, his tone of voice disgusted, a small number of Kentville residents travelled to the region to watch the disaster unfold. "I was not expecting people from Kentville to drive down. It was very frustrating."

 At approximately 1:45 a.m., he said, they were told to, "demobilize," that the command centre was moving to Peggy's Cove. After dealing with the media, he said, they returned to the fire hall where they received updates on the disaster from the same media.

 As the search continued, Chief Publicover said, firefighters, like everyone else involved in the operation, became impatient. "There was a lot of frustration, a lot of hurry up and wait, from members because there was nothing to do but it couldn't be helped."

 Chief Publicover said he is generally happy with the Emergency Measures Organization and the disaster response. "The scope and size of what we were involved in was managed. Our system allowed for a delegation of responsibilities. I was very happy with the various emergency response organizations because of how they interacted with command."

 The fire hall was offered to, but not accepted by, the military late last week, he said, as they returned to the region to clean up debris that had washed onshore. The fire department also provided security for debriefing (counselling) sessions held at the hall.

 In summation, he said, he wants to thank the various fire departments and other emergency response organizations for their efforts. He also wants to thank the community in general.

 "The outpouring of support from the community was incredible. The food delivered to us by the Hubbards and Blandford auxiliaries as well as individuals from the community was unbelievable."

 He continued, "I also want to offer the gratitude of the people of Blandford and the Blandford Fire Department to the individuals and agencies who responded and to say our concerns are with the families of the victims."

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