The Maclean’s Excerpt

Pity and Providence

August 23 1999
The Maclean’s Excerpt

Pity and Providence

August 23 1999

Pity and Providence

The Maclean’s Excerpt

It is almost a year since Swissair’s Flight 111, boundfor Geneva from New York City, crashed in the Atlantic Ocean 13 km ojfNova Scotia, killing all229people aboard. In Flight 111, published this week, Halifax author Stephen Kimber re-creates the events leading up to the disaster last Sept. 2 and the response of dozens of fishermen who put out to sea in the dark in a futile search for survivors. One was Robert Conrad, 52, who hadfallen asleep in front of his TV after an exhausting 16hour workday. When he awoke before midnight at his home overlooking St. Margarets Bay, 45 km southwest of Halifax, a newscaster was relaying details of an unfolding disaster. Realizing that a plane had gone down just offh ore, Conrad took his fishing boat, the Jubilee, out to the crash site. He was soon to learn that this was not a rescue mission. An excerpt:

SEPT. 3,1998,12:30 A.M.

Robert Conrad had heard one report of survivors on his radio, but then that had quickly been changed to a request for a body bag. Everyone else was talking about bodies. On the radio now he heard the skipper of the Island Venture, a fishing boat out of Tancook, talking to the captain of the naval supply ship HMCS Preserver. The skipper had radioed in that he’d found a body and he wanted someone to come take it off his boat. Immediately. “You could tell he was a wreck emotionally,” Conrad recalls. “He gave his position and then he just lost it. I remember his expression. He said: ‘I can’t take

this. I’m getting out of here.’ And I thought, ‘What can I do?’ -§ I remember praying for a purpose for me being out there. | And then my mind went back to this program I’d seen on TV s a while back. There was this lady in Ontario, a retired woman I with a deep sense of compassion for people who were dying ° in the hospital with no one around in their final moments. She’d made it her mission to make sure that no one would ever die alone. And I thought to myself, ‘If I can find even a victim who has perished and be with them so that they’re not alone in the darkness on the water, then that is something I can do that would make my going out there worthwhile.’ ” And then suddenly, he was in the middle of the crash site. He turned on the Jubilee’s spotlight and cast it over the heaving waters. “The pieces were so small,” he marvels. “Thousands of bits and pieces, nothing bigger than the size of a magazine as far as you could see.” He was grateful he had at least ended up in a section of the debris field with fishermen he knew. He shone his light over at the DCD Rocker, off to one side. “I could see that they had a body cradled to the side of the boat and they were having trouble lifting it aboard.” Conrad began doing circles of the area to see what he could find, to see who he could be with in their final moments.

In the eerie glow of his boat’s spotlight, the object in the distance on the water looked to Conrad like a doll. He manoeuvred the Jubilee closer, then used his eight-foot gaff to pull the object alongside. But it wasn’t a doll. It was a small child, “unlike any I had ever seen.” The toddler’s naked body had been so mangled in the crash that Conrad couldn’t tell whether it was male or female. Strangely, he would say later,

Reprinted with permission from Flight 111, The Tragedy of the Swissair Crash, copyright Stephen Kimber, published by Seal Books, a division of Random House of Canada Ltd., Toronto.

he felt no particular horror at this moment. “It was just like it was a mechanical act,” he would explain. “You function because you need to function.” He lifted the child aboard, put the body on the deck and radioed his find to the Preserver on Channel 8, the channel set aside for the fishing boats to communicate with the on-scene commander.

“Flash your spotlight so we know your location,” Cmdr. Rick Town radioed back calmly.

“There was something about his voice,” Conrad says now. “No one who was not there can appreciate what the sound of the right human voice is. I took that sound with me and I remember thinking, if I ever find out who that person is I want to seek him out and thank him for what he did that night. I want to get acquainted with that voice.” (When they did meet, two months later, Conrad says he was surprised to learn how hard-won Towns radio-controlled calm really was. “He had 50 men on the bridge with him and it was chaotic, he told me. They weren’t trained to manage

SL Nova ScOtia fisherman who rushed to the horror-filled site of last years Swissair crash came face-to-face with the big questions of life and death.

anything like this either. But then, none of us were.”) Whether it was Towns soothing voice or his own determination to do the right thing for those who had died that night, Conrad managed to keep the horror of it all at a distance at the time. As he waited for the Preservers barge-like recovery vessel to make its way to him, he looked down at the child lying on the deck, naked. “I thought it shouldn’t be so undignified, even in death.”

He radioed the DCD Rocker, which was circling nearby. “Do you have anything onboard I can use to wrap a child’s body in?” he asked. The crew came close, tossed him a blanket. “I knew that this was Providence. I’m a great believer in Providence. I was out there alone. I had a limited capacity to help. That little child was the only one I could have managed to bring aboard. It was like an honour I had been bestowed, to be with that child at that moment.” He took the blanket, spread the covering on the deck table he normally used to dress tuna, then gently picked up the child, put it on the blanket, wrapped it “reverently” in the covering and held it close. When the recovery vessel finally managed to manoeuvre alongside in the choppy waters, Conrad took one last look at the child in his arms, then handed it over to the waiting arms of the sailor from the Preserver. “It was a moment of significance for me,” he says simply.

And then he went back to work. He could see a partly opened black suitcase floating in the water. He gaffed it over to the side of the Jubilee, but the soft-sided case was already too heavy with water and too slippery with fuel for him to bring it aboard. As it slipped away, he noticed a piece of clothing sticking out of it. Perhaps at least he could salvage that, he thought. He used his gaff to hook it, pulled it in and dumped it on the deck. It was a womans brown suede jacket.

SEPT. 6,3:30 P.M.

[Conrad and his wife, Peggy, have several relatives of crash victims to their home by the sea so they can spend some time close to where the plane went down. Among them is Nancy Wight of New York, whose only child, 18-year-old Rowenna, was among the victims.]

Nancy Wight was keen to hear Robert Conrads story about what it had been like on the water that night. In truth, Conrad needed to talk about that, too—with people who

had lost someone in the tragedy and might understand the awful feelings of sadness he was still having. He didn’t need much prompting to recount the sanitized version of what he’d seen and done the night of the crash: about finding the body of the toddler and, later, the black suitcase that was too heavy to bring aboard. But he had, he told them, managed to rescue a brown suede jacket from the case as it drifted by.

What did the jacket look like? Nancy Wight wanted to know. Rowenna had packed a brown suede jacket in her black suitcase. In the end, there was too litde information for either of them to be absolutely certain, but it seemed likely that Conrad had fished Rowennas jacket from the ocean that night. It was a bit of Providence, a tie to bind them together. EH]

Looking for answers

Since the Swissair disaster last September, investigators and lawyers have been busy:

• Working with salvaged parts still being brought up from the ocean floor, specialists from Canada’s Transportation Safety Board are examining evidence of an electrical fire in the ceiling at the back of the cockpit of the MD-11. No date has been set for the release of their report.

• As a precaution, Swissair has removed a sophisticated onboard entertainment system from its entire fleet. Its wiring passed through

the ceiling where the fire appeared to start. Last week, operators were alerted to remove an insulating material called mylar from 1,230 planes around the world—at a cost of up to $800,000 per aircraft—because it helped spread the fire on Flight 111. No Canadian planes have mylar insulation.

• So far, Swissair and other defendants are facing claims for $ 16 billion from the families of U.S. travellers aboard the doomed flight. The airline offered last week to pay compensation for financial losses if the victims’ families agree not to seek punitive damages. The airline said it has reached settlements with relatives of five victims in France.