For starters, I must apologize for this commentary coming a week later than I had planned, but sometimes life just happens and other things interfere with our plans. However, I could not allow the 20th anniversary of the crash of Swissair Flight 111 to pass without observing the momentous event that shook the entire province and, in many respects, still reverberates in the region more than two decades later.
I worked in the community newspapers back then and I recall the events well.
It was a horrific tragedy. As if the world fell from the sky 20 years ago on Sept. 2, 1998, when Swissair Fight 111 plunged into the cold, unforgiving waters of the Atlantic Ocean near Peggy’s Cove, killing all 229 people on board. The disaster forever changed the lives of all those who responded to the emergency, many of whom continue to live in this region.
I have vivid memories of that night. I recall that it was dreary and foggy, the kind of night ripe for tragedy when, just before 11 p.m., I received a call telling me that emergency crews were rushing to the scene of a reported plane crash somewhere near Blandford.
At that point, no one had any idea how serious it was or what type of plane had crashed. Two decades later, we know the full scope of this disaster as its legacy is still felt today. While those who died in the crash were the obvious victims, the tragedy also had an overwhelming impact on many other lives, including emergency personnel and those who reported on the story.
In the aftermath of the disaster, media from around the world converged on the South Shore. I worked full-time in the news business at that point in my life, and can say, without hesitation, that covering the aftermath of the Swissair crash was one of the most emotionally draining stories I’ve worked on in my entire career.
I had covered other tragedies and disasters, including murders and deadly car crashes during my career, but I had never reported on anything of this magnitude. Reporters covering the catastrophe experienced sights, sounds and emotional sensations that left us numb. I still shudder at the thought all these years later.
To be sure, the crash devastated the lives of the families and friends of those who perished, but it also caused a long-term emotional impact that the residents of these communities will never forget. And I am sure that for some of those touched by the tragedy, the memories are as fresh today as they were 20 years ago.
On that fateful night, an army of volunteers immediately sprang into action and unselfishly extended a helping hand. Brave fishermen quickly took to the water after the crash in a valiant attempt to rescue any survivors. They stayed on to help in the recovery effort once it was determined there were no survivors.
Others, such as the many volunteer firefighters, search crews, police and all the recovery personnel, also suffered from the stress associated with such devastation. Still others, such as the Canadian Red Cross, church groups, local residents and even schoolchildren, reached out to embrace all those who needed a helping hand doing whatever was necessary to lessen the strain. The local response was nothing short of inspiring, but that is our way.
At the height of the rescue and recovery efforts, our emotions were often stretched to the breaking point. Reporters are supposed to be objective, but in covering this tragedy, we were constantly tested as we faced sights and sounds beyond anything we could have imagined. This was a heart-wrenching story, well beyond our comprehension. We hear of such tragedies occurring in other places, but we never believe it will happen here.
There were times in the days following Sept. 2, 1998, that reporters, just like members of the general public and everyone connected to the tragedy, felt overwhelmed by the facts, but we pushed forward. However, some things get in your head and they stay there. This tragedy left a legacy of painful memories that are impossible to forget.
I recall during one of my visits to Peggy’s Cove in the days following the crash, witnessing one young woman — a grieving family member and very distraught —pass her infant to a man standing next to her and then try to throw herself in the cold Atlantic. But thanks to the quick actions of those standing next her, she too may have become a victim.
And I will never forget the tortured cries of an elderly family member screaming “My God! My God!” as he was carried away by stretcher. Obviously overcome by his grief, the man had collapsed on the rocks while visiting the site not far from where his loved ones died.
Above all, the sights and sounds of the memorial service held a week after the crash are forever fixed in my mind and heart. I cannot erase the images of mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters crying over their terrible loss as the list of names of those who died in the crash was read. Anyone who shared this experience will understand the anguish one feels when confronted by such grief.
If these sights have left such an indelible mark on me, I cannot begin to imagine what those more closely associated with the recovery of crash victims are feeling even 20 years later. Their lives will never be the same again.
Whatever the tragedy, the world does keep on spinning, and somehow, we manage to move on. In time, while we don’t ever forget, we do find a way to cope and we come to terms. Somehow, we accept that such tragedy is part of our lives. The challenge in the face of such horror is to hang on, even when it feels like you are falling off.
People on the South Shore will never forget the events surrounding the crash of Swissair Flight 111, but, thankfully, most have found a way to put this tragedy behind them and that’s the view from here.