Resilience – Reflections on the Swissair Tragedy Twenty Years Later

One of two Swissair memorials on shore, this one overlooking Peggy’s Cove. The right-hand stone points to the interment site at Bayswater, the one on the left to the third corner of a triangle, the crash site offshore.

Tomorrow night, at 22:31 Atlantic Time, hundreds of people around the world will be taking quiet moments in their own way to mark the twentieth anniversary of that awful moment when Swissair’s Flight 111 from New York to Geneva plunged into the shallow waters of St. Margaret’s Bay, just a few minutes flying time from the city of Halifax. The tragedy was compounded by the terrible knowledge that only one of the 229 bodies, a child, was sufficiently intact to be identifiable visually. Recovering remains of the others, whether floating, entangled in the wreckage or washed ashore, was to be a mammoth and grisly challenge. Those involved in supporting grieving families; recovering and trying to identify body parts; retrieving wreckage; reconstructing bits of the aircraft to determine the cause; cleaning up the shoreline; or simply supporting those who did – they number in the thousands, and all have their own meaningful memories. Here’s three of mine.

Immediately after the crash, a temporary morgue was set up in a hangar at the Shearwater naval air station across the harbour from Halifax, staffed by a team of more than 100 forensic pathologists, technicians, DNA experts, dentists, radiologists and technicians, all under the leadership of Nova Scotia’s Chief Medical Examiner. Identifying everyone on board was not just a legal and investigative requirement, but also a moral and humane one. Dr. John Butt appeared to be tireless and became the face of that effort and, above all, the one who had to meet collectively and individually with grieving families to explain that there would be no bodies to bury, only some positively identified fragments of bone or flesh. If, as Ernest Hemingway once suggested, courage is grace under pressure, then John Butt had courage in spades.

To provide a refuge from the awful work of the morgue, the Canadian Red Cross established a Comfort Lounge in a temporary trailer, offering pleasant surroundings, air that did not smell of death, quiet corners to retreat to, supportive volunteers and the service of counsellors if desired. At least one counsellor was critical of the decision to include young Army Reserve medics in the forensic team, some of them still teenagers. But, one hot afternoon when the morgue smell was seeping outside the hangar, one of these young part-time soldiers came into the Comfort Lounge, had a good cry on the shoulder of a kindly volunteer, and then straightened up, squared her shoulders and said “You know, we young people can handle all this, but I do worry a bit about some of the older ones.” With a smile I imagine her,  years later, leading a team of medics in some bloody war zone, encouraging the younger ones saying “It’s not so bad – I saw worse with Swissair.” In any case, God bless resilient youth! The sooner they are running the world the better.

On another afternoon a small van pulled up to the door of the Comfort Lounge unannounced. The driver explained that he had just come from a small community in Cape Breton Island in the north of Nova Scotia, some 400 kilometres away, where ladies at the local church had felt moved to do something but at first felt helpless at being so far away. So they did what they knew and made a van-load of sandwiches for the morgue and wreckage investigation teams. This simple yet profound act of thoughtfulness and generosity that day moved us more than they could ever have imagined.

This anniversary brings back all sorts of thought-provoking memories, but these three stand out. A pathologist suddenly confronted by the unimaginable; rising to the challenge of leading a diverse team under awful circumstances, and whose consummate professionalism and gracious humanity helped to make the unbearable as bearable as it could be. A teenage part-time military medic who had volunteered to provide this last service to the dead, demonstrating the courage to have a good cry and then the dedication and determination to stride back to her grisly work. The anonymous ladies of a small church group who did a big thing, reminding us that we are never absolutely helpless in the face of overwhelming tragedy. If we can’t do anything else, we can at least make sandwiches.

In the midst of darkness – light

From shattered ruins – love

The interment site at Bayswater where a ton of unidentified human remains are buried. These stones are aligned to the crash site, twelve kilometres out to sea.

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