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Swissair Tragedy


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Editor's Diary ­ Coping with the crash aftermath



Vernon Oickle
Lighthouse staff

 It will be two weeks tonight, September 16, that Swissair Flight 111 plunged into the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean between Peggy's Cove and Ironbound Island, killing all 229 on board. While they were the obvious victims of this terrible tragedy, the crash has had an impact on the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others.

 In the aftermath of the disaster, media from around the world converged on the South Shore. As the community paper, we were right there with them as this was as much a local story as it was international. Admittedly, it was often a challenge. Members of the Lighthouse editorial staff experienced sights, sounds and emotional sensations that have left us numb and hanging our heads in disbelief. The toll of this air disaster cannot be measured only by the passenger list and crew roster. It has devastated the lives of their families and friends, but also caused a long-term emotional impact the residents of these South Shore communities will never forget. An army of volunteers unselfishly extended a helping hand. Brave fishermen immediately sprang into action after the crash in a valiant attempt to rescue any survivors and stayed on to help in the recovery effort. Others, such as the volunteer firefighters, search crews, police and all the recovery personnel will also suffer from the stress associated with such devastation.

 It will take months, or years, to assess the full impact of this disaster. It may take even longer to find out why the plane crashed near our coast that stormy night.

 Over the past two weeks, our emotions have been stretched to the breaking point as we tried to cope with such a terrible loss of life. As reporters covering the tragedy, we have tried to be sensitive, but as sometimes happens with such a story, the truth can seem sensational, particularly to those on the outside critiquing everything we do. Did we cross the line with this story? I don't think so. We considered every item as we dealt with it. This is a heart-wrenching story. By its very nature it demands close attention to all the details. Although we may wish to make the story more palatable, there comes a point where it is necessary to relate the facts so that we can all fully understand the tragedy. Yes, some people may find some details offensive or distasteful. As reporters, we also find them shocking, but we believe they must be told. It is impossible to cover a story of such destruction and death without revealing some intimate details.

 There were times in the days since September 2 that we all felt overwhelmed by the details, but we also knew the public must be kept fully informed. So we pushed forward. We were careful not to spoonfeed only the less "sensational" facts to the public. People need to know the whole truth about such a tragedy.

 Some things get in your head and they stay there. This is one of those things. This tragedy has left behind many heart-wrenching images. I saw one young woman, a grieving family member, pass her infant to a man standing next to her and then try to throw herself in the cold Atlantic near the Peggy's Cove lighthouse. And I will never forget the tortured cries of an elderly family member screaming "My God! My God!" as he was carried away by stretcher. He had collapsed on the rocky shore while visiting the site not far from where his loved ones died.

 Above all, the sights and sounds of the memorial service last Wednesday night are forever fixed in my mind and heart. I cannot erase the images of mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters, crying over their terrible loss as the list of names of those who died in the crash was read. Anyone who shared this experience will understand the anguish one feels when confronted by such grief. If these sights have left such an indelible mark on me, I cannot begin to imagine what those more closely associated with the recovery of crash victims are feeling. Their lives will never be the same again.

 As I stood in the crowd at the memorial service a week after the terrible tragedy occurred, I found myself glancing skyward hoping for some inner strength that would anchor me in this angry sea of emotion. Ironically, just before the service began, I was shocked back to reality by a jet passing overhead, its stream of spent fuel slowly tailing off and its passengers oblivious to the solemn crowd gathered below.

 And there it was. In one quick glance, the truth was driven home and I was left with an eerie, unsettling feeling. Whatever the tragedy, the world does keep on spinning. The challenge facing all of those touched by the crash of Flight 111 is to hang on, even when it feels like they are falling off.


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