Peace of mind tough to find
Ten years after a huge airliner crashed into St. Margarets Bay, those who witnessed the aftermath still struggle with what they saw
By LOIS LEGGE Features Writer
Sun. Aug 31 - 7:33 AM
Ray Boutilier kept a scrap of blue jean he discovered while searching for remains after the Swissair crash in 1998.
Bob Conrad looks out over St. Margarets Bay from his home in Fox Point. Mr. Conrad was one of many recovering debris from the Swissair crash in 1998.
A SAILBOAT rises and falls on the waves below Bob Conrad's hilltop home.
The clouds shift overhead, casting shadows across the sparkling seascape. It's a place of beauty for some but horror for others: The crew of a Swissair MD-11 airliner lost their battle against an onboard fire here and crashed into the ocean.
The Fox Point fisherman grew up near this pretty bay on Nova Scotia's South Shore, finding crabs on the seashore as a child, catching mackerel and bluefin tuna as an adult plying a trade he has loved for nearly 45 years.
But a decade ago, on a wet, "dreary" September night, he saw horrible things in St. Margarets Bay "” things that changed his life forever, things he can never forget.
Neither can Ray Boutilier, then a fishing charter operator on the opposite side of the bay, or Paul Walsh, a veteran navy diver who went to the ocean floor a few days later and found a surreal mix of mangled aircraft, human remains and money.
And neither can the man in charge of the scene, now-retired navy captain Rick Town, whose calm, reassuring voice on a marine radio channel Sept. 2 and 3, 1998, helped Conrad and others through some of the most difficult moments of their lives.
As the 10th anniversary of the Swissair Flight 111 crash nears, the loss is most profound for the families of the 229 people aboard, all killed when the commercial jet plunged headfirst into the water, shattering into millions of little pieces.
But those who rushed to sea hoping to find survivors and those who recovered remains or comforted relatives also have had their struggles over the years, even if they only talk about it when asked and even if they downplay their own pain.
For some, like Boutilier, the struggle continues, mainly in his mind. He keeps a palm-size scrap of recovered jeans, as if to convince himself that what he saw the day after the crash was real.
"You couldn't believe that God could make people in such small pieces," he says of images that still leave him gasping for breath.
Others, like Conrad, were angry at first about such unfathomable loss; then for years felt "this recurring sorrow, this deep, deep sorrow"; and then finally came to a place of spiritual peace.
But it didn't start out that way. Not for any of them, or for the thousands of other Nova Scotians caught up in the disaster.
For Conrad, the day began like any other. After a full day of fishing off West Dover, he returned home, flopped on the couch and dozed off. A news report about a plane crash jolted him awake sometime after 10 p.m., and as the minutes unfolded so did his realization that the passenger jet had crashed almost on his doorstep.
So because it was "the right thing to do," the father of two jumped in his car, drove to the Jubilee (his high-speed planing vessel) and set out alone into the "dreary, gloomy night."
Soon spotlights from other fishing vessels, flares from military aircraft and the wide, red pulsating lights activated by Town on HMCS Preserver lit up the fuel-drenched water. By about 11:30, Conrad was in the middle of a nightmare.
"Very quickly we all knew there were no survivors," he says, sitting on his deck, a large Canadian flag flapping in the wind, a vast expanse of ocean in view.
"I think that was the first result of seeing pieces that were a part of the flight. I mean, everything was that big," he says, squeezing his hand closed. "And if that kind of destruction occurred to material stuff, well, people wouldn't fare any better."
The vast majority of those aboard Flight 111 did not in fact fare much better, as he learned by listening to the voice of a distraught fellow fisherman recovering remains off Tancook Island.
But there was to be an even more startling and life-altering discovery that night, as Conrad's boat rolled amid pieces of the aircraft, body parts and personal belongings. And it came just 15 minutes after he arrived on the scene.
"In the light of my spotlight was what I thought was a doll somebody had packed for the trip," he recalls, his voice calm and quiet as he goes back in time.
"And I moved my boat close to it, and just lifting it out of the water it was clear it was a young child. Thinking back on that part of it, one of the things that has always amazed me was the ability of the human spirit to respond appropriately. Like there was no horror. There was no panic or high emotion. It was just a matter of being there and knowing you had something important to do and going about doing it. It was just a matter of showing the young body the respect that you should.
"All of a sudden I had a distinct awareness of the honour that was mine at that moment, and so everything else was kind of dialled out and you give the care to the body as you ought. I knew the baby should be comforted in something, so I had a blanket aboard down forward and I went and got that and wrapped the young child in the blanket and laid him out appropriately, so he wouldn't be shoved into anything else that would be going on around the vessel, and then I made contact with the Preserver."
Town, in charge of the recovery operation that night and for the next nine days, remembers the call. He didn't know at first what Conrad had found or even that he had taken something aboard. He doesn't remember the words they exchanged. But "I could tell by his voice right away that something was drastically wrong."
For Conrad those moments on the marine radio were something "beautiful" in a sea of human misery.
"His voice on the VHF was so reassuring. You know, we were in a totally foreign environment. We didn't belong there. . . . We had no training," he says of the fishermen in the middle of the disaster. "We didn't know what we ought to be doing, and to have him on the deck of that supply vessel, giving instructions over the VHF "” that made everything so manageable."
Town, his voice catching with emotion over the telephone from Vancouver, calls the recovery of 14-month-old Robert Martin Maillet a "pivotal" moment from a time that has haunted him for a decade.
He sent a launch from his vessel to Conrad's boat. When it returned to the Preserver, "when we got that baby, we knew there was not a chance in hell" that anyone had survived the crash. The province's chief medical examiner at the time, Dr. John Butt, confirmed that assumption when he came aboard shortly after 5 a.m.
"He came on the bridge of the ship and he said: ˜What you've got set up is great, but I've got to tell you I have great fears for your crew.' That sent a chill down my spine and I said, ˜How so?' And he said" "” Town pauses for a moment and his voice becomes hushed and shaky "” " ˜I've never seen violence done to a body like what I'm looking at now.' It scared the shit out of me. It was that moment in time when we knew that it was no longer a search and rescue."
So Town's ship became a floating morgue and a storage facility for all manner of things: piles of luggage and clothes, jewelry, children's plush toys. Toys still send him back to September 1998. And like others involved in the Swissair search and recovery, the smell of fuel "” from a car, a bus, a boat, a plane "” brings back sights too horrible to understand and too graphic to print.
The visceral memories have stopped him short on a bus or waiting for a plane to take off or walking past a macabre Halloween display portraying a dismembered body.
"It took a toll; it took a heck of a toll at the time and later," Town says of his crew and himself. Even while talking about it on this day, "a lot of emotions from the time well up, and they're pretty raw."
"One thing I took to the bottom of my heart (that night) was that we were only out there for one reason, to rescue people, and when that didn't happen it very quickly morphed into ˜We're here representing our best possible human efforts on this Earth to get something for the families,' and that emotion drove everything: my priorities of how we committed people, what we took out of the water: ˜Make sure that you get something that identifies the individual.' "
He's proud, he says, of what he and his crew accomplished in the days and nights that followed. Authorities did eventually identify everyone on the plane; people involved in all aspects of the recovery did everything they could to help.
But "it still never feels like it's enough," Town says.
The same sense of helplessness comes over Boutilier as he sits in his Hacketts Cove home with his Swissair newspaper clippings and that little piece of a pair of jeans. The retired construction worker, now 82, and two of his five sons took media crews out on their fishing charter boat the day after the crash, and they experienced something they've never discussed since.
"We were sitting there," outside the recovery zone, he says. "And they were taking pictures and all of a sudden from the bottom came a whole part of the wreck, and we were sitting right in the middle of it, and my son "” I had a diving bag "” he dipped that diving bag full with pieces of the bodies and all their personal belongings.
"And I'm telling you, I've seen drownings. I've seen burned people. I've seen car wreck (victims). But I never, ever thought I'd see anything like that.
"Even to this day the thoughts come to me."
Boutilier's doctor has told him she suspects he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. But he has never sought professional help and probably never will.
"My dear, it's very hard and I take bad spells sometimes, real bad," he says, rubbing his hands up and down the arm of his chair, describing anxiety that makes him feel short of breath. Boutilier already has difficulty breathing; he's hooked up to an oxygen machine he needs as he battles diabetes and bowel cancer.
He can't say much more. "It hurts too much to talk about it."
Many of the fishermen out there that night didn't want to talk about it either, Conrad recalls. But he chose to speak with a counsellor about his own experiences and says it helped him understand what he was feeling.
Just after the crash he lost his appetite and couldn't sleep. He did bizarre things like putting dirty dishes in the fridge rather than the sink.
Then the sadness came "” and stayed.
"I'd find myself just crying," he says. It could be triggered by the smell of fuel on his boat or the words of a church hymn he had heard a hundred times before.
Conrad, who studied theology at an American university and has a deep Christian faith, says he welcomed the sorrow because "it was speaking to what a person's heart ought to be about."
The grief eventually subsided after he met family members or learned more about the people he'd been crying for: all those passengers; the little boy who shares his given name.
Conrad wanted to know more about little Robert; wanted, he says "” his voice almost inaudible in a whipping wind "” to know what the child looked like.
Three years later he found out. He met the family of the baby who perished that night along with his mother, Karen Domingue Maillet, and father, Denis Maillet, both 37. And he saw pictures of a child whom Karen's sister Goldie Domingue describes as "a happy little boy (who) brought us joy for the short time that he was here."
"We put together a little photo album of pictures of Robert and Karen and Denis, which we showed him, and he seemed to want to hold on to it, so we gave it to him," she says of their 2001 meeting at a local restaurant, the first of many meetings with Conrad since Domingue and other relatives started coming back to Nova Scotia to mark the crash anniversaries.
"I think we were wanting to perhaps give him some comfort about what he had experienced," she recalls from her law office in Baton Rouge, La., "and to let him know how grateful we were (that he) recovered baby Robert's remains and lovingly cared for (him) until he handed over the remains to the authorities.
"And he gave us a very detailed accounting, which was done in a very compassionate way. He's a special person. He just embodies someone who we were very grateful had found Robert's remains."
Her family is also grateful to other Nova Scotians who helped, right after the crash and long afterward.
"I felt that they felt they couldn't do enough, but in fact they did so much to comfort us and to attend to our every need and to allow us to grieve and to be there if we needed anything. It's just amazing the amount of love and compassion that we were blanketed in during that time and every time we go back."
Domingue, one of her sisters and her parents will come back for the 10th anniversary of the crash. Although it will be a painful visit, she says she has accepted it was part of her "gentle" sister's "destiny" to die the way she did, along with people she loved.
Their deaths are still a "huge loss," but Domingue says she's also grateful that the "sweet, sweet" couple and their treasured child perished together, that none of them had to go on alone.
What helps Conrad is not only the relationships he has formed with this family and other relatives of the people who died, but an abiding faith that everyone involved will meet again.
"That's one of the things that I think gives me courage and I try to pass that along, that (despite) these tremendous losses that families suffer, which most of us can't even imagine, I believe losses are only temporary losses, that there will be a great and glad and joyous coming together again with those precious souls."
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