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Swissair Tragedy

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Early hours after plane crash focused on finding survivors

Lisa Brown
Lighthouse staff

 COUNTY - The early hours following the reported crash of Swissair Flight 111 saw all eyes and all search efforts focused off the coast of the Aspotogan Peninsula.

 First reports of the downed passenger plane began circulating by 11 p.m. September 2, indicating the aircraft had disappeared somewhere near Blandford. By shortly after midnight, a command centre of RCMP officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians had assembled near Bayswater Beach.

 As they watched, along with crowds of onlookers and media gathered there and all along the coast of the peninsula, RCMP and fishing boats moved back and forth off the coast searching for confirmation that an airplane had gone down. Helicopters illuminated areas of the water, but all that could be seen was the ocean. The beach was eerily silent as more swells and whitecaps, illuminated by spotlights from the fire trucks, quietly broke on the shore.

 Blandford residents Maureen and D'Arcy Enright joined the throng near the beach to wait for word. Just after going to bed, they heard the aircraft as it went down with what they described as a bang.

 "We just heard the plane as if it was very low," Mrs. Enright said. "The bang, it wasn't really like thunder. It was just like an explosion."

 Another Blandford resident, Connie Thompson, said her husband first dismissed the noise as thunder too until a friend called to say her husband - a volunteer firefighter - had been called out to a plane crash.

 "We decided not to just sit there, maybe there was something we could do," Mrs. Thompson said. They followed the sirens as far as Bayswater where they were stopped at a roadblock.

 "This is where we've been for the past hour and a half, two hours just waiting like everybody else for some news and just hoping and praying that they're going to find some of them alive or just find where the plane went down," she added.

 As the hours passed in Bayswater, it began to rain. Some area residents went home while the number of media representatives increased. The boats in the distance continued to go back and forth and a couple of hanging flares cast an orange glow over the land and water to the southwest.

 When an ambulance careened along the road to the command post and stopped, the tension in the air grew as people hoped for word of survivors. But it left again with lights flashing and sirens blaring and rumour circulated that it carried a rescue worker possibly downed by a heart attack.

 Then came word that the Bayswater command post was being shut down. Debris from the crash had been located off Peggy's Cove and the focus was shifting to that location. Chester RCMP Sgt. Rod Douthwright, who briefed the media, could give no indication if there were any survivors.

 In Peggy's Cove, that uncertainty continued. Roadblocks kept most of the curious away from the famous lighthouse tourist destination where emergency crews of all descriptions gathered at a new command centre. Police, firefighters and ambulance technicians were joined by officials from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, military liaisons and the Canadian Red Cross. The media presence continued to grow.

 At the small wharf that fishermen have used for decades, a boat brought the body of the first recovered crash victim - a woman - to shore around 3:15 a.m. Officials were grim.

 At a media briefing 90 minutes later, an RCMP spokesman said rescue efforts were continuing, assisted by the Canadian military, but were hampered by the weather and the dark.

 "It's a mammoth tragedy, there's no question about that," Cpl. Frank Skidmore of the Tantallon detachment said. "We're just hopeful that we will find survivors and all we can do is continue to search. Up to this point, I can't confirm any survivors and I'm not told of any."

 He confirmed that a temporary morgue had already been established at CFB Shearwater.

 Near the wharf a few minutes later, Chester RCMP Cpl. Doug Grist said sea conditions were impeding the largest disaster he'd seen in his 23 years working in Nova Scotia. "I've never been involved in anything like this," Cpl. Grist said. "I don't think we've ever had anything of this magnitude."

 He'd been in one of the police boats patrolling off Bayswater but had just arrived at the debris field when he was called ashore to pick up some investigators. Weather conditions wouldn't permit his return.

 "We're waiting right now for it to calm down out there. It is wild," Cpl. Grist said. "There's probably a nine or 10 foot sea out there now. The big ones out there, the Preserver and them, they're okay, but small boats are getting bobbed around just like corks."

 Seabright resident Ronnie Rideout, still awake after 5 a.m. having gone first to Bayswater and then to Peggy's Cove, was shocked by the tragedy.

 "They say when your time is up . . . but no one can tell me that 229 lives were just snuffed out just like that," he said, snapping his fingers. "You can't tell me that."

 But as daybreak approached, it seemed that was exactly what had happened. At a 5:45 a.m. media briefing, Cpl. Skidmore was not optimistic. The debris field was spread over an estimated 10 kilometres and only small bits of wreckage were being found along with victims' remains.

 "We're always hopeful and that's why we're continuing to search through the night, but as time goes on it gets more dismal," he said. "If there are no survivors, the key task then will be the recovery of those passengers aboard the aircraft and subsequent identification. We'll be here a long time, as long as it takes."

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