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EDITORIAL: A disaster that brought our humanity into sharp focus

A family member stands at the Bayswater memorial and looks out over the sea, following services marking the tenth anniversary of the tragic flight of Swissair 111.
A family member stands at the Bayswater memorial and looks out over the sea, following services marking the tenth anniversary of the tragic flight of Swissair 111. - Tim Krochak

Now and again, something happens to remind us that we’re part of a larger world, that we in Atlantic Canada cannot hold ourselves apart just because we occupy this little afterthought of a region sticking out into the North Atlantic.

For many of us, that epiphany was 9-11, when thousands of bewildered visitors shut out of U.S. airspace in the wake of the largest terrorist attack in history were forced down into our airports, mostly Halifax and Gander, for several days. As we watched those horrible images on our TV screens, we instinctively rushed in to care for total strangers as though they were our own. Because that’s what you do in a crisis.

Many more of us were more directly affected by another airline tragedy, this one even closer to home.

For at about 9:30 p.m. on Sept. 2, 1998, Swissair 111, its cabin choking with smoke from an electrical fire, its pilots desperately dumping fuel and trying to prepare for an emergency landing at Halifax’s airport, crashed into St. Margarets Bay, shattering into millions of pieces and killing 229 people instantly.

We’re all familiar with the events of the next week or so, as boats and aircraft scoured the ocean in the forlorn hope of finding survivors, then in the grim task of gathering debris and body parts. Then, the victims’ families began arriving in a sad pilgrimage from all over the world to begin processing their grief.

To say it changed us is trite, but it’s true. The very symbol of Canada’s Ocean Playground, Peggys Cove, became a literal memorial for thousands of family members of those lost in the crash. They still return from time to time to pay their respects at the crash memorial, located just down the road from the famous village.

And many of us can’t forget what we saw.

Visitors circle the monument dedicated to the 229 victims of Swissair 111 near Peggys Cove. The crash site was eight kilometres from the shore, near the entrance of St. Margarets Bay. - The Chronicle Herald
Visitors circle the monument dedicated to the 229 victims of Swissair 111 near Peggys Cove. The crash site was eight kilometres from the shore, near the entrance of St. Margarets Bay. - The Chronicle Herald

On this 20th anniversary of the crash, we’ve chosen to commemorate this terrible event by focusing on those memories. So we asked some of the people who responded that night and in the days following to tell us what they remember.

For Chronicle Herald photographer Tim Krochak, it was the way the ocean and sky blended together into a dark blue mass interrupted by circling helicopters. For RCMP officer Gil Dares, it was a wedding band with an inscription found a year later among the debris.

For Dr. Trevor Jain, it was the autopsies he performed on the babies who were on the flight. Every once in a while, he smells jet fuel for no particular reason. For Red Cross volunteer Desmond Dillon, it was witnessing family members on the rocks at Peggys Cove staring for hours out at the recovery site.

For chaplain Bill Newell, remembering is “just like pressing the replay button.”

For many volunteers it meant consoling family members for days and then dealing with the damage to their own psyches for years afterward.

The rest of us contend with a lingering sadness, a feeling that it’s hard to believe it happened, that it’s been 20 years, even though it seems like yesterday.

We shouldn’t forget. We should honour those who lost their lives that night alongside the would-be rescuers who scoured the waters in vain for survivors and those who helped their loved ones shoulder the burden of sudden loss.

We should also remember that it’s possible to comfort people in the most extreme grief, even if you’ve never met them before. Tragedies like Swissair 111 both tear us apart inside and bring us together.

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