Canada

A Lingering Trauma

Two years later, grieving relatives share painful memories of the Swissair crash with Nova Scotians who comforted them

Sherri Aikenhead September 11 2000
Canada

A Lingering Trauma

Two years later, grieving relatives share painful memories of the Swissair crash with Nova Scotians who comforted them

Sherri Aikenhead September 11 2000

A Lingering Trauma

Canada

Two years later, grieving relatives share painful memories of the Swissair crash with Nova Scotians who comforted them

By Sherri Aikenhead in Peggys Cove

European business executive Ian Shaw was used to travelling the world, but the drive he made on a twisting Nova Scotia road on a September day two years ago was unlike any other. Shaw’s only daughter, Stephanie, 23, had been returning home to Geneva from a holiday in New York City when her travel plans changed. After being rerouted onto another plane, she was among the 229 killed when Swissair Flight 111 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on Sept. 2, 1998, 13 km off Nova Scotia. Shaw, hurrying to the crash site after flying in from Switzerland, felt he couldn’t reach it quickly enough. But after navigating the fogshrouded, seaside road to Peggys Cove,

N.S., Shaw—who had just started a watch company back home—finally neared the spot where the MD-11 had crashed into the waves of the Adantic.

It was then he decided to change his life. “The fog lifted as I crested the hill and suddenly everything was blue on the sea and I realized my world had ended as I knew it.”

Personal tragedy took Shaw to Nova Scotia that day—and two years later, he is living no more than 15 km from the crash site. After a lifetime accumulating things, he couldn’t bear to carry on the way he had before the disaster. So a year Sorting debris during the salvage ago, with only his favourite classical muoperation in 1998: unrecognizable sic CDs and books, he left Geneva and opened Shaw’s Landing, a seafood restaurant in tiny West Dover, four kilometres east of Peggys Cove. “It’s the right place,” the Scottish-born 63-year-old said last week, referring to the compassion Nova Scotians have shown. “It isn’t a matter of comfort. It has been a matter of survival. The goodness here is underestimated and good is important right now.”

The Swissair crash remains a devastating event for many, from the families of the victims, to the fishermen who con-

ducted futile searches for survivors, to the local volunteers and military personnel who took part in the grisly salvage operation. And the crash remains particularly perplexing for investigators who are still trying to determine exactly why the MD-11 went down. Last week, the Hull, Que.-based Transportation Safety Board released a report saying it does not know what started an electrical fire in the cockpit. Before the crash, veteran pilot Urs Zimmermann had reported smoke in the cockpit to regional air-traffic controllers in Moncton, N.B. After deciding to land in Halifax, Zimmermann guided the jet in a U-pattern over St. Margarets Bay to dump fuel and reduce altitude. At 10:24 Atlantic daylight time, he declared an emergency and at 10:30, the jet slammed into the Atlantic, fracturing into two million pieces.

The impact continues to be felt. About 115 people returned last Saturday to two memorials erected along St. Margarets Bay. They also had a private dinner with residents who helped recover the bodies or performed simple acts of kindness, such as feeding them sandwiches and tea. Several others scouted out properties, so that, like Shaw, they could be near their loved ones’ resting place. “It’s a terrible beauty for them,” observed John O’Donnell, a Halifax military chaplain who helped ferry boadoads of relatives to the ocean’s crash site.

One relative, Philip Baker, cycled for 30 days from Baton Rouge, La., to commemorate the deaths of his sisterin-law, Karen Maillet, her husband, Denis, and their 14-month-old son, Robert. Baker said many of the families feel permanendy grateful to the 1,600 Nova Scotian volunteers. “We now have an extended family,” he said, “because of the people who helped and are still helping in the aftermath of the crash.” At $50 million, the Swissair crash investigation has become Canada’s most expensive. “It is turning out to be one of the longest, most complex investigations anywhere,” says TSB spokesman Jim Harris. Investigators still don’t know what happened during the six minutes after Zimmermann declared the emergency and the flight recorder stopped. They suspect the wiring of the entertainment centre may have caused the initial spark. But they will not speculate any further and it could be another year before an answer is found. “Are we ever going to find all of the links in the chain? I don’t know,” lead investigator Vic Gerden said when the report was released. Responded Barbara Fetherolf, who lost her daughter Tara: “I am grateful that they are taking their time to do a thorough investigation, but I haven’t found their updates to really give us much information. We are hopeful that the final report will give us some idea of what happened that horrible night.”

The mystery behind the crash has bred a mini-industry of books, lawsuits and television movies. CTV will broadcast Blessed Stranger: After Flight 111, a fictionalized account of the crash starring Kate Nelligan, in October. Several Web sites receive up to 500 hits a day, especially whenever another plane crashes. Hundreds of families remain connected through international associations operating in the United States and Europe.

The tragedy remains all too fresh in Nova Scotia, as well. Some locals still receive counselling because of lingering trauma. The plane’s horrific impact meant none of the remains drawn from the water or washed ashore were recognizable. The medical examiner could only make identifications through DNA. “Fd say there are four people [in the

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military] not back to work and they may never come back,” said O’Donnell.

With the crash still stirring so much emotion, Swissair’s insurer, Lloyd’s of London, backed off plans in May to search for $300 million in sunken gems in a stainless-steel tube. Lloyd’s apologized to the families, who called the proposed dive grave robbery. Many families are proceeding with legal action. More than 100 lawsuits seeking $16 billion in damages are before U.S. courts. And last week, Swissair paid an undisclosed amount to 50 fishermen who sought compensation because they could not fish in the crash-site waters for a month. Another 50 claims are ongoing.

Ian Shaw was part of a class-action suit, but dropped it. He has tried to blend into the Nova Scotia community where he lives (his wife of 30 years, Gudula, remains in Geneva). This year, he opened a post office in his restaurant for the residents of West Dover and he now employs eight people. His counselling, he says, is the “ocean’s horizons” where his daughter’s ashes are scattered. Still, Shaw has not yet visited the memorial site overlooking the Atlantic Ocean where the names of all 229 are etched on a granite marker. “I cannot go,” he says, his voice breaking. “I am not strong enough yet to see her name written in stone.” EÛ3