September 14 1998


September 14 1998


The Atlantic Ocean claims Swissair Flight 111 just off the coast of Nova Scotia




The 60 residents of Peggys Cove, N.S., have few lessons to learn when it comes to either nature’s beauty—or its sometimes terrible power. The village, 43 km south of Halifax, is one of the most photographed spots in North America, with a stunningly picturesque harbor that is visited annually by thousands of tourists. For almost two centuries, residents of Peggys Cove and other nearby communities have fished the Atlantic Ocean, regularly confronting sudden squalls, towering waves and icy waters—and occasional losses at sea have become a fact of life. But when death came visiting one night last week, it did so in a different fashion: man-made, falling from the skies. Many local residents did not even hear the uneven, sputtering engines of the doomed Swissair Flight 111 when it flew overhead shortly before 10:30 p.m. Atlantic time. It was moments later, when there was a sound alternately described as either a thud or a huge thunderclap 13 km out to sea, that they became aware of disaster at hand. “It was like a shock wave,” said Randy Daniel, a 40-year-old sound engineer from nearby Chester. “We went outside to look for lightning. That’s when the sirens started and we knew it was something awful.”

By week’s end, area residents were adjusting to a new, generally unwelcome form of renown for their rugged stretch

of coastline—as the nearest site on land to the second-worst air disaster ever in Canadian territory. The crash of the Swissair MD-11, which had left New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport en route to Geneva, killed all 229 people aboard, and left investigators puzzling over both its cause and circumstances. The last message recorded from the doomed aircraft by air traffic controllers was: ‘We have to land immediately.” It was 10:24 p.m. and the plane was at 2,910 m. Six minutes later, it crashed into the icy Atlantic.

Although no cause had been formally ruled out by week’s end, authorities from both Canada and the United States say it is unlikely that sabotage was involved. About 80 investigators from the two countries and Switzerland have been assigned to the crash, under the direction of federal transportation officials and Royal Canadian Mounted Police—who have dubbed the ongoing recovery effort Operation Perseverance. They are focusing on the cause of the smoke that was reported by the pilots in the cockpit about 20 minutes before the disaster—the first sign of catastrophe ahead. One theory under consideration is that toxic smoke caused by faulty

wiring may have disoriented the pilots—with the result that when they tried to dump fuel shortly before their planned emergency landing, they inadvertently released all of it.

Six minutes after the pilot’s final transmission, the plane crashed


The impact of the crash, and the 229 lives lost, sent reverberations around the world and spurred an international investigative effort

Whatever the cause, the impact of the crash, and the lives lost, sent reverberations around the world. Although the majority of victims were either American, French or Swiss, the passenger list included people from 11 other countries—including one Canadian, 41year-old Yves de Roussan, a Montreal-born official with the children’s aid agency UNICEF who was based in Geneva. In all, there were seven officials from UN-related agencies aboard the aircraft: because Geneva and New York are the sites of the international body’s two largest operations, the Swissair flight was often informally described as “the UN shuttle.” And some friends and co-workers noted a bitter irony in the crash. “When you work for a humanitarian agency, there’s always risk involved, particularly when you’re posted in war-torn countries,” one of de Roussan’s colleagues told Maclean’s. “But when it’s such a tragic accident, it’s a completely different circumstance—it’s a waste.”

Other victims included internationally renowned American AIDS researcher Dr. Jonathan Mann and his wife, Mary Lou ClementsMann, a leading vaccine researcher and professor, and Bandar ibn Saud ibn Abdul Rahman, a member of Saudi Arabia’s royal family. UN employee Pierce Gerety took the plane only because he had been bumped from two previous flights, while Swiss professional tennis player Marc Rosset survived because he decided, at the last minute, to change his flight and stay in New York to practise another day after his early-round loss in the U.S. Open.

In the wake of the tragedy, about 800 relatives of the victims travelled to Halifax—many of them on Swissair charter flights from New York and Switzerland. As the A310 Airbus from Zurich landed in fog and drizzle at Halifax International Airport on Friday, several passengers pulled the plane’s blinds down to avoid the media throng. Most of the relatives made the trip to Peggys Cove, where officials had set up a special isolated seaside area to allow them to look out towards the crash site. Several memorial services in different religious denominations were held over the weekend; some family members laid wreaths and collected jars of seawater to take home. Among those making the trip to Peggys Cove was Peter Gerety of Southport, Conn., whose brother Pierce, director of the African Great Lakes operations for the United Nations’ High Commissioner of Refugees, had been on his way back to Geneva from a family reunion. Gerety, whose brother would have turned 57 on Labour Day, did not come back from Peggys Cove empty-handed. “I just felt like having a memento,” he said, explaining the two rocks he brought back with him. “It’s such a beautiful place—and that’s the irony of it. So I thought I’d have a memento for my sister-in-law.”

Residents of Peggys Cove and surrounding communities, mean-

while, did what they always do in times of crisis: pitched in to help (page 20). As soon as word of the crash spread, many took their boats out onto the choppy waters to begin the search, hoping to find survivors. They were joined shortly after by Canadian military frigates, aircraft, a submarine with sophisticated sonar equipment and Maritime Command search-and-rescue vessels, in scouring an estimated 78-square-kilometre patch of ocean. What they found was gruesome. Because of the horrific impact as the aircraft hit the water, Dr. John Butt, Nova Scotia’s chief medical examiner, said that many of the human remains were “fragmented.” John Campbell, whose 13-m fibre glass boat was one of the first on the accident scene, told Maclean’s two days later that he was still in a state of disbelief. And the search experience, said local fisherman Robert Conrad, was one that participants “won’t be rid of for the rest of their lives.”

Among the priorities for the searchers is finding the telltale black boxes that contain flight data and cockpit recordings that would potentially offer key clues to the cause of the disaster. As of Saturday, searchers were nearing the discovery of one of the two boxes—but bad diving conditions delayed their efforts. Among the debris collected were personal effects, ranging from a sweater found floating on the oil-slicked water, to a Bible, a still-legible postcard of New York City, a necktie, children’s toys, a handwritten diary and a birthday balloon. Such items offered almost unbearably poignant reminders of the shattered lives of those aboard Flight 111—and the sheer sense of normalcy and routine with which passengers would have boarded the flight.

They would have had good reason for confidence: Swissair, whose last accident was in 1979, is renowned within the airline industry for its high safety standards, and the two pilots flying the aircraft, Urs Zimmermann, 50, and co-pilot Stefan Low, 36, were veterans with ex-

-Tim Larson of Connecticut, whose wife lost an uncle in the crash, speaking to rescue workers in Peggys Cove

You’ve done a fantastic town. So thanks.’

emplary safety records. Zimmermann, in fact, had served as a flight instructor in the past for the Boeing MD-11, and the two men had flown the same aircraft several days previously without problems.

Despite a history of some mishaps, the MD-11 is considered to have, overall, a good service record. A three-engine, wide-cabin aircraft that evolved from the DC-10, it has been praised by experts for its reliability— although Boeing announced earlier this year that it is phasing out production because of low commercial demand. Over the years, the MD-11 has been involved in about a half-dozen incidents of varying seriousness. Most of those involved crew error. But wiring has been a potential problem in the MD-11. Two years ago, American aviation officials recommended wiring changes to the model because of concerns that a possible electrical fault could lead to fire or control problems.

Based on all the information pieced together last week from radar tracking and control tower conversations with the doomed aircraft, the final journey of Flight 111 began smoothly enough. The plane passed final inspection at Kennedy airport and lifted smoothly into the air at 8:18 p.m. From New York, it travelled eastward towards the Atlantic in a flight path that would take it over Nova Scotia, flying at an altitude of 9,900 m.

The first sign of trouble came about 56 minutes into the flight. At about 10:14 (the aircraft had entered into the Atlantic time zone, one hour ahead of eastern daylight time), the Swissair crew called the Moncton, N.B., air traffic control tower—which was responsible for the region. According to edited transcripts of the ensuing conversation that were made public Saturday, a voice—presumably that of Zimmermann—said, “We have smoke in the cockpit,” and suggested Boston as an emergency landing point. The tower, in turn, cleared them to turn towards Boston, but asked if they preferred Halifax, about 129 km away (the distance to Boston was 555 km). “Affirmative,” came the reply.

The captain and co-pilot, apparently having donned smoke masks and goggles, began bringing the plane to an altitude under 3,000 m. ‘We must dump some fuel,” Flight 111 told the control tower. Twice, the control tower gave them permission to dump, and told them they were cleared to land. As a result of the decision to dump fuel and reduce altitude, the aircraft, which was within 46 km of the Halifax airport at one point, turned away from the city, flying in a U-pattern over the top of St. Margarets Bay. Fed-

eral transport officials said there were two good reasons for that decision: an emergency landing is safer without heavily loaded fuel tanks, and the aircraft, with the weight of the fuel, might have been too large and heavy to land on the Halifax runway without overshooting.

At about 10:24, as it began its final exchange with the control tower, the aircraft began dumping fuel. At the same time, the cockpit issued a final, chilling message: “We are declaring an emergency. We are starting vent now. We have to land immediately.” At that point, said Vic Gerden, the chief inspector with the National Transportation Safety Board, the tone of the voice was garbled and muted, probably because of an oxygen mask. Six minutes later, said Gerden, “the aircraft contacted the sea.”

Shortly before the crash occurred, the passengers—according to established procedure—would have been told to move into crash mode, tucking their heads into their knees with hands clasped around their legs. The final signal for that action from the cockpit to the crew seconds before impact would be the code words “Brace, brace.” Just before it hit the water, the aircraft sheared off the top of a navigational buoy.

The impact of the crash caused buildings to shake and images on television sets to flicker as much as 15 km away. Still, some residents of Peggys Cove did not realize precisely what had happened until they received telephone calls from friends who heard news reports—or from reporters in the United States and elsewhere who called local houses at random, seeking information. Almost immediately after that, local fishermen clambered into their vessels and began heading out to sea—despite the darkness and choppy 15° C waters—in search of survivors. On land, after the


After leaving New York City, Swissair Flight 111 was in the air for about 70 minutes be-

fore crashing into the waters of the Atlantic uf Ocean 13 km off Peggys Cove,

N.S., on the evening of Sept. 2. All times are Atlantic daylight time:

9:18 The Boeing MD-11 jet takes off from John F. Kennedy International Airport, quickly climbing to its cruising altitude of 9,900 m.

10:14 Pilot Urs Zimmermann reports smoke in the cockpit to regional air traffic controllers in Moncton, N.B. He requests a landing site and suggests Boston, 555 km from his position. Moncton offers him the alternative of Halifax, only 129 km away, and Zimmermann agrees.

10:18 Moncton notifies Halifax rescue centre of the plight of Flight 111. Zimmermann, meanwhile, says that before landing he has to dump fuel.

10:24 Zimmermann declares an emergency and says

the plane must land immediately.

10:30 The jet slams into the Atlantic with a noise, according to witnesses, like “a thunderclap” after disappearing from radar screens.

sirens wailed, many residents turned on all their house lights to light up the shoreline for the men at sea.

In the end, Maritime Command officials overseeing operations

did not formally switch the description of their activities from “search and rescue” to the ominous “search and recovery” until 1 p.m., Friday—almost 39 hours after the aircraft went down. But for those on the scene of the accident, it became apparent long before

that there was little hope of finding survivors. As boats and overhead helicopters cast ghostly light on the heaving ocean, the searchers were confronted by battered human remains and masses of debris. At least one vessel turned back: its crew was too appalled by the sight. And Ray Boutilier, 72, who travelled to the site a day after the crash, had previous experience recovering bodies from the sea while serving in the navy in the Second World War. But he gave up after one trip, calling this experience “even worse” than his war days.

Repeatedly, a small government of Canada vessel could be seen docking at a cordoned-off wharf, where it unloaded material recovered from the crash site. The human remains were put in a nearby refrigeration truck, and then taken to a makeshift morgue consisting of five refrigeration trucks set up at nearby CFB Shearwater. There, dental and pathology specialists worked on the difficult task of identifying remains, relying on a combination of past dental and medical records and DNA samplings supplied by families.

Along with the overriding air of shock and tragedy, there was also a sense of frustration among local residents at the manner in which their lives were suddenly turned upside down—especially by the 300 members of the media. “This is crazy,” said local resident Audrey O’Leary, the owner of Peggys Cove Bed-and-Breakfast, who first learned of the crash in a midnight call from a CNN reporter who found her number in a phone book. Jack Campbell, who operates a Peggys Cove Web site, reported receiving more than 21,000 “hits” in the first three days after the crash, ranging from best wishes to requests for more information.

Perhaps the most uncomfortable people were the usually stoic fishermen who went to the site to help—and in the aftermath found themselves besieged with questions about an experience most were trying hard to forget. “They are doing what they can to avoid the media,”

said Conrad. At the same time, despite the exemplary behavior of most local residents, the RCMP had to issue public warnings that it would arrest anyone who found and failed to turn in wreckage from the site—after reports that some people had taken their boats out in search of souvenirs.

out in search of souvenirs.

At the end of the week, officials refused to even reveal how many bodies had been recovered, citing their battered state and the difficulties of identification. Preliminary autopsies indicate that all the victims were killed on impact when the aircraft hit the water—and those examinations had not yet shown any indications of smoke on the victims, meaning any fire in the cabin was not widespread. When— or if—they are satisfied that they have done all they can to recover the remains of the 229 victims, authorities will turn

their full attention to determining the cause of the crash.

The search for answers will be daunting. In the aftermath of the crash, some observers questioned whether the pilots’ initial plan to land in Boston cost Flight 111 precious time in the air: authorities estimated the plane might have successfully landed at Halifax if it could have been kept aloft another seven to eight minutes. And authorities at Yarmouth Airport—located not far from where the plane passed over in its final minutes—said they could have accommodated a landing, and wondered why they were never informed of Flight Ill’s problems. But investigators are adamant that their ear-

ly findings indicate one conclusion: based on the voice recordings from the control towers, said Gerden, the behavior of the pilots in their final minutes was appropriate to the circumstances and “fully professional.” For now, what caused Flight 111 to fall from the sky remains a mystery. But for the families and friends of those who fell, the dreadful consequences are all too clear.