Thursday, September 4, 2003 Back The Halifax Herald Limited
Peter Duffy / Staff
Looking for closure 5 years after Swissair Flight 111 crash
By Peter Duffy
SOFT LAUGHTER and muted chatter draw me towards the big kitchen.
Frankly, I'm ready for some cheeriness to offset the sadness of this day.
It's 10 o'clock Tuesday morning, and I'm at the community centre in Blandford, a dot on the map 45 minutes south of Halifax.
Five years ago today, Swissair Flight 111 disintegrated and all 229 souls on board perished in the gray waters of the Atlantic, not far from where I'm standing.
I'm heading for Bayswater, a little further along this narrow coastal road. That's where a memorial prayer service will begin less than an hour from now.
This will be my first; I've never had the courage to attend one before. For some reason, however, the fifth anniversary seems special.
But before I go there, I wanted to come to Blandford, to see how folk here are coping.
Five years ago, this quiet little place bore the brunt of a massive recovery operation. It was occupied, quite literally, by the military and others, all bent on their grim task.
By all accounts, the place is still recovering from the experience.
I stand in the kitchen doorway, watching the volunteers making mounds of sandwiches for the reception to follow.
David Condy stops cutting a stack of egg sandwiches.
"How many d'you think we can expect?" he asks me.
"We've been told to expect about 35 families," he says with a frown, "but how many people in a family?"
I ask his wife, Plessa, if she thinks this will be the last anniversary where everything is so organized.
"I think it's plenty," she says quietly. "It was a very, very tragic thing for our community too. Our community is mostly older people."
She reminds me people here were sent reeling by two shooting tragedies in the area that same year.
Just three months before the crash, a Big Tancook Island man shot his two young sons, then turned the gun on himself. And that October, a young Blandford man shot his parents to death.
"Then this came," she says, gazing toward the grey waters where the jetliner fell.
Half an hour later, I'm in Bayswater at the memorial site.
Two solemn-faced youngsters, Bridget O'Donnell, 10, and sister Kathryn, 8, are giving out programs.
Here and there, I see knots of search and rescue personnel, people who were so involved back then. They've come from all over.
Among them is Anne Dawson, a member of Halifax Regional Search and Rescue.
I ask her about a grassy area enclosed by granite posts. I almost stumbled onto it a moment ago. She says it's the resting place for 28 coffins containing unidentified remains.
I make a silent vow to watch where I'm treading.
The service begins, and four dozen grieving families and friends seem to cluster even more tightly at the memorial. Dark glasses abound.
One relative in the crowd, a woman in a pale blue sweater and jeans, is down on one knee. She remains that way for most of the 45-minute service.
The media keeps a respectful distance.
Out in the bay, seabirds perch on small rocks poking up from the sea.
Towards the end of the service, an official moment of silence begins. All that can be heard is the irritating throb of the TV trucks parked nearby.
Then comes a new sound.
It's a military helicopter, its grey body matching both the mood and the morning's weather. It clatters along the water's edge, low and slow, causing the sea to roil and the birds to scatter.
It makes a sweep and comes back again. This time, a crew member drops a wreath. It lands about 10 metres from shore.
The last hymn is sung; it's the emotional Eternal Father, Strong to Save. I stare down at the grass, wishing I'd brought dark glasses.
As the last notes fade, I head back to my car, passing Anne Dawson emerging from the bushes. She's been crying.
Back at the community centre, everything is ready.
Volunteer Judy Campbell surveys the spread.
"I'd be very surprised if we got many from the community," she says.
Because it's enough now, she implies quietly.
The hall begins to fill. I recognize the kneeling woman in blue.
Her name is Kathy Thompson, and she's from Los Angeles. Her father, Ernst, died in the crash.
I ask her why she knelt.
"It was a comfort thing," she replies. "I was more comfortable kneeling than standing. I was bothered by my back."
We chat about closure. Kathy notes that the final Canadian report on the crash was released this summer.
"Maybe that's closure for the community," she says.
But not today.
I've just heard there's been a death in Blandford and that the funeral service is this afternoon, in less than an hour.
Once we've all left, the volunteers plan to gather the remaining sandwiches and take them up the hill to the next reception.
For Blandford, closure will have to wait just a little while longer.
Why is 5 years such a big anniversary? Five years is not a long time!
My sister is 4 and half years younger than me. We look the same age! Its not a big difference in marrying someone. Its not long enough for a maple tree to reach maturity.
Do any of you honestly believe that after five years, we can find closure?
Look at what's happening with Lockerbie. Its been almost 15 years! They're still after justice! They still haven't found the truth....
When it happened, it was so consuming, that to cope I kept telling myself that a year or two would see the grief and shock through. Now, five years on, all I have learned is that the grief and horror will always be there, that a day is unlikely to pass when I will not think about it.
Five years is nothing. A moment in time.
Ivy, I've sent you a PM.
Here is what Gail Sheehy has to say on the subject. She is speaking about 9/11 families, 2 years later:
"People tend to say things like, ï¿½Itï¿½s time to get over it, itï¿½s time to move on.ï¿½ Or ï¿½Have you found closure? You must have found closure by now.ï¿½ Well, the dirtiest word in the lexicon of trauma victims is closure because there isnï¿½t really any final closure. Thereï¿½s a wound there that never quite closes. And recognizing that and accepting it is much healthier than trying to pretend that itï¿½s all healed over and youï¿½re just moving on as if nothing happened."
Here is another interesting article that appeared in the Halifax Daily News:
It's time to let Flight 111 go: Continuing formal observance of the Swissair tragedy may do more harm than good
The Halifax Daily News
Friday, September 5, 2003
Byline: RICK HOWE
The time has come to let Swissair Flight 111 go, to let the tragedy of what happened off our shores five years ago this week become a distant memory -- never to be forgotten, but not to be publicly acknowledged and commemorated yearly as has been the case in each of the last five.
I think for all our sakes, it is the proper thing to do. Tuesday's 5th-anniversary commemoration should be the final ``official'' recognition of the events of that night, the last organized public event. The families of those who perished that night have, for the most part, now come to terms with their losses, and have in a sense healed, in part because of the many Nova Scotians who so willingly became a part of their lives. Indeed, some have formed life-time bonds.
Families' spokesman Myles Gerety told CBC's Linda Kelly this week that he and the others feel they've been treated better than those affected by other tragedies in other lands, thanks in large part to the good people of this province. So it truly saddened me to read the details of a Dalhousie University study that looked into how the crash has affected the many local citizens, volunteers and professionals called on that September night -- the horrors and shock many experienced first-hand and what it has done to their lives since.
For some, each anniversary brings back those unpleasant memories. It's hard to avoid it with all the attention given the date by the media. On Tuesday, for example, CBC broadcast its supper-hour news live from the crash site.
The crash affected thousands of people. Dalhousie researcher Terry Mitchell said there is a perception only Peggy's Cove was affected by the disaster, but there were other communities -- many others. Area fishermen and other locals from around St. Margarets Bay were the first into the water mere minutes after the crash, expecting to save survivors, but instead finding a scene of devastation unlike any other they -- or most of us -- have had to witness.
An army of experts, police and the media later descended on their once-tranquil country setting, barking orders, probing with questions. adding to the confusion and disarray many felt. And remember, the recovery effort went on for several months. Recall how helpless most of us felt as our hearts went out to the grieving family members, and how much more intense that feeling would have been for those who stood beside them and shared their tears.
The Dal study also brought to mind my own recollections of the crash. While I never made it to the scene of the initial rescue effort, and later a search for debris and human remains, I have heard gruesome accounts from those who did. I was involved to a certain extent, though on the fringe -- basically a messenger -- but the impact of that night remains with me to this day.
I can imagine how intense it was -- and, in fact, still is -- for those directly involved in all aspects of the effort, from the ladies' auxiliary groups who fed the searchers to the men and women given the task of comforting the families of the victims.
My job that night was on the air, passing on the details of what had happened and interviewing those who were directly involved. Each time I mentioned the toll -- 229 dead -- I choked, my eyes welling. I just could not imagine so many people died this close to where I live, so many humans gone in a flash. I thought about how their families might feel, about how I would feel if someone I loved was taken from me like that. It was without a doubt the most difficult challenge I have had on the air in my 30-plus years of broadcasting, and I have covered many tragedies and many deaths, including the Saint John jail fire in the late 1970s and the Westray explosion in Plymouth. None impacted on me like the crash of Flight 111.
I have not been to Peggy's Cove, nor have I flown, since September 1998. If that is how the crash affected me, what has it done to the locals of St. Margarets Bay, or the many others who stepped up to the plate after that night? What have they had to go through in the five years since that big airplane fell from the sky and into our lives? For I am sure that in some ways, all Nova Scotians were moved by the events of that night.
Many are still battling demons, according to the Dalhousie study, with signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. They suffer from nightmares and flashbacks. They're on edge and feel numb at times. Some have resorted to drink or drugs. It has given others family difficulties or health problems, with reports of cardiovascular disease up nearly 60 per cent, and a doubling of gastrointestinal cases.
Refusal to seek help
Compounding the problem, the stoicism of the people of St. Margarets Bay leads to a refusal to seek help. Indeed, one of the Dal study's authors says it was even difficult to find volunteers to help with the research because they didn't want others to know they were talking about it. Many still do not want to talk about it. It is, perhaps, their way to forget, or a respectful, private means of grieving.
The Dal study has made a number of recommendations to ease the impact of any future tragedy or disaster, and we have known many in Nova Scotia. Many of the professionals involved in Swissair 111, police and military members, for example, had access to help.
The study says we must make sure local residents and volunteers get that same help and the all important followup. The folks of the Bay didn't know at the time, but what they were called on to do that night has laid the groundwork for future Good Samaritans.
Unfortunately, like many before them in similar situations, it extracted a heavy price. The families of the victims say five years later, and with the release earlier this year of the Transportation Board's report on the crash, they are starting to feel a sense of closure. Closure is what the people of St. Margarets Bay want, as well.
Gerety says the fifth anniversary was a milestone, and now he says perhaps it is time to move on. We will never forget what happened Sept. 2, 1998, but for the sake of us all, let's put this to rest for a time.
Rick Howe is the host of the radio talk show Hotline, weekdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on AM 920 CJCH.
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