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Swissair Tragedy

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A day of mourning at Peggy's Cove

Vernon Oickle
Lighthouse staff

 COUNTY - It was a day filled with images that will live forever in my mind.

 Some called it a day of mourning; others described it is as a pilgrimage of grief.

 I witnessed it as a day filled with emotion and stress; a day when families came to face their devastating loss as they confronted the harsh Atlantic Ocean on the rocky shores of Peggy's Cove, the place where only three days earlier 229 men, women and children plunged to their deaths in the crash of Swissair Flight 111.

 September 5, was a beautiful late summer day. The bright, sunny weather, however, betrayed the dark clouds of emotions that hung over one of Atlantic Canada's most famous landmarks. More than 500 mourners came to Peggy's Cove just to be near the place where the tragedy occurred September 2 at around 10:30 p.m.

 Families and friends of those who perished in the country's second largest plane crash began making their way to Peggy's Cove early that Saturday morning after spending a heart-wrenching night in Halifax hotels where they were briefed on the salvage efforts. By this time they knew their loved ones were gone and that officials were now trying to recover bodies from the cold waters so that families could give their relatives a proper burial.

 Among those who made the pilgrimage early in the day was Claire Mortimer who lost her 75-year-old father, John Mortimer, in the crash. He and his second wife, Hilda, were on their way to vacation in France.

 Clutching a small bouquet of pink and white flowers, Ms Mortimer spoke with dignity and strength, defying the obvious urge to cry. Noting that when her family gathered in June at her father's Maine home to celebrate his birthday, she said, "We had no way of knowing that would be the last time we would see him."

 John Mortimer, a former senior vice-president of the The New York Times, was a man who lived for the moment, said his daughter as she addressed the throng of international reporters that represented media outlets from around the world. "He wanted his family to celebrate his life when he was alive."

 The waters off Nova Scotia are a fitting resting place for her father, she said, adding that he always wanted his ashes scattered in the Atlantic Ocean. "In an odd way, it's very comforting to come here and see this beautiful place. He would have loved this place."

 Another grieving family member who chose to address reporters was Rudolph Jegge from Switzerland. Ten days before the crash, his wife, daughter and son Alexander had flown to Denver where his son was going to start university. Mrs. Jegge and her daughter were returning home on Flight 111.

 With his son Alexander at his side, Mr. Jegge said while choking back tears, "I am thankful to the Lord that he left me my son."

 Throughout the day, mourners of all ages and nationalities made their way to the edge of the rocks near the historical lighthouse which stands guard like a lone sentinel at the mouth of St. Margarets Bay. Most left flowers at a makeshift altar, some carried away bottles of water from the cold Atlantic Ocean and some videotaped the structure as a permanent record of their pilgrimage.

 Emotions continued to escalate throughout the early afternoon as the unnamed mourners kept coming, being ushered to the craggy rocks by Red Cross and Salvation Army volunteers. They may have been strangers in this small, seafaring community, but their plight had touched the hearts of all those who gathered at the shore.

 The depth of this tragedy was driven home when one woman dropped the grey blanket she had wrapped around her shoulders, passed the infant she had been holding to a man standing next to her and darted toward the icy water. There was no doubt about her intentions which were only thwarted when police and firefighters standing guard along the rocks grabbed her before she could throw herself in.

 Overcome with grief, the unidentified woman was led from the lighthouse while the man followed behind with the infant still hugged close to his chest.

 Less than an hour later, one elderly man had to be carried by stretcher from the rocks at the foot of the lighthouse. Officials said he either slipped or collapsed in grief. On his way to the ambulance he could be overheard crying "My God! My God!"

 Another visual reminder of the tragedy came as 13 crew members of the Swissair flight which brought grieving family members to Nova Scotia made their way to the lighthouse. Dressed in their official navy uniforms, the flight attendants and pilots carried flowers, knelt on the rocks and prayed for their lost friends and the passengers of Flight 111.

 Upon returning from the lighthouse, crew captain Berner Naef spoke to the media first in English and then in his own language. He answered no questions.

 "It is the will of this crew to join the relatives and friends in their deep sorrows and grief, and it was the will of this crew to participate here on site and pay tribute to the passengers and crew members, especially since this crew knew many members of the crew of Swissair Flight 111 very well and personally."

 Keeping his composure, Capt. Naef spoke fondly of his deceased colleagues saying that one attendant was on her first flight and that the captain of Flight 111 was looking forward to celebrating his 50th birthday in Switzerland on Saturday, this day of mourning.

 The Swiss crew were among the last mourners to arrive that day and as they made their way from the rocks of Peggy's Cove back toward the charter buses that had brought them to this place of tragedy, an eerie silence, almost a sense of foreboding fell over the crowd of area residents, volunteers, search officials and media gathered to witness the pilgrimage. As the sea of blue uniforms left the site, all were reminded of another sea of blue - the one which had three days earlier claimed the lives of so many people.

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