Anthony Wilson-Smith,BRENDA BRAN SWELL September 14 1998


Anthony Wilson-Smith,BRENDA BRAN SWELL September 14 1998

The search for hard facts



Investigators face stiff challenges in solving the mystery of Flight 111



The frustrated media mob tried to draw out Transportation Safety Board of Canada chief inspector Vic Gerden.

“What were the Swissair pilot’s last words?” repeated one reporter at the Peggys Cove media briefing on Friday.

“Was the cockpit fire set by a terrorist?” yelled another. Did the desperate pilot mistakenly empty his fuel tank, causing the plane to crash? Had the crew made the right decisions during the emergency? But Gerden, a low-key, scholarly looking man, refused to take the bait. “I don’t deal with maybes g or what-ifs,” he said flatly.

He—and his team of investigai tors, which includes American and §

Swiss experts—prefer to deal with g cold, hard facts. By week’s end, they were just beginning the long, § gritty search for answers to why Swissair Flight 111 plunged into the ocean. HMCS Okanagan searched for the critical flight recorder boxes. Transport Canada experts sifted through the collected debris from the plane. Forensic teams began examining the human remains, while RCMP bomb specialists and laboratory analysts probed the pieces of wreckage for traces of explosives. Even then, the aviation detectives face a huge challenge—extracting the truth from an airplane wreck that now sits in 45 m of icy North Atlantic water. “We possess few facts at the moment,” conceded Benoit Bouchard, chairman of the Transport Safety Board.

The flight data and cockpit voice recorders—the all-important black boxes—would certainly send investigators in the right direction. Bill Waldlock, a professor and associate director of the Centre for Aerospace Safety Education in Prescott, Ariz., told Maclean’s that the Swissair jet’s flight data recorder is highly sophisticated. It is part of a new generation of recorders that can measure a hundred different elements on the plane, providing a more complete picture of how an aircraft was functioning than older models. “It will tell them a lot about the health of the airplane,” Waldlock explained, “assuming it kept running right up until the end.” By late Saturday, authorities said they had picked up the telltale acoustic homing signal of one of the recorders, and hoped to recover it soon.

And there is more hard slogging ahead for the investigators. Some of it—interviewing witnesses who saw or heard the flight go down, examining plane maintenance logs—resembles ordinary police work. But many of the techniques involved in other aspects of the investigation use sophisticated science, such as a remote-controlled submersible to search the bottom of the ocean, and hypersensitive lab equipment to test debris. As soon as any wreckage is lifted out of the water, it is examined by airplane-design specialists, Swissair experts

and other MD-11 pilots looking for clues. “Sometimes, something by itself may not look important,” said Gerden, “but perhaps when it is correlated with other information, conclusions can be drawn.” Forensic teams also face a challenge—a grisly one. By week’s end, as soldiers combed the area shoreline to retrieve human remains, rescuers had retrieved more body parts than actual bodies. “Crashing on the water is equal in G-force to crashing into concrete,” said Dr. John Butt, Nova Scotia’s chief medical examiner. “It would seem to be a forgiving substance. It’s not.” And, he added, “identification is going to be a laborious procedure.” And one that will almost certainly take weeks. The work will be done in a makeshift morgue at B hangar, a brown rectangular building on CFB Shearwater, across the harbor from Halifax. Unless all else fails, relatives of the victims will not be asked to endure the process of visually identifying family members. Instead, they are being encouraged to simply provide dental and medical records. Forensic teams—including doctors, dentists and radiographic technicians— will use those records, X-rays and personal effects to try to identify the victims. DNA analysis will also be an important part of the investigation: parents or siblings of victims are being asked to provide a genetic sample, which can then be matched to any unidentified remains.

Clues, the investigators maintain, could be almost anywhere. The Transportation Safety Board has asked for toxicology tests on the victims. Les Macey, the officer in charge of the RCMP’s forensic lab in Halifax, says cyanide and carbon monoxide in human tissue could, for example, indicate a fire onboard. “It’s just to try to add another piece to the puzzle,” says Macey. Sometimes, it seems, small steps are the only hope of solving the biggest mysteries. □