On a cloudy evening on Sept. 2, 1998, 229 souls boarded Swissair Flight 111 at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York for a flight heading to Geneva, Switzerland.
The plane, a McDonnell Douglas MD-11, was piloted by Urs Zimmermann, 50, and co-pilot Stephan Loew, 36. They along with the 12 other crew members welcomed 215 passengers as they boarded the flight.
The flight took off at 9:18 p.m. AT.
It was known as the “United Nations airbus” as many passengers were foreign dignitaries or UN workers returning to the organization’s headquarters.
Passengers on the flight also included lawyers, students and even a world-famous scientist all headed on the seven-hour flight along the Atlantic coast up to Nova Scotia, over Greenland and Iceland, before landing in Geneva.
Roughly 53 minutes into the flight at 10:10 p.m. AT, flying at an altitude of 33,000 feet, the pilots noticed an abnormal odour and began to investigate. There was some smoke in the cockpit, but not in the passenger cabin and the crew believed it was coming from the air conditioning system.
Four minutes later the pilot declared “Pan Pan Pan”– an international signal indicating a problem that’s not yet an emergency. The pilot requests a diversion to Boston.
“Swissair one eleven heavy is declaring Pan Pan Pan. We have smoke in the cockpit, request deviate, immediate return to a convenient place, Boston I guess?” says one of the pilots in a heavy Swiss-German accent in air traffic control tapes.
Moncton air traffic control advises the plane to land in Halifax, about 100 kilometres away.
The flight crew dons oxygen masks as the pilots begin working through a checklist for when smoke is detected in the cabin.
But unbeknownst to the crew, a fire had ignited in the ceiling above the cockpit bulkhead and was spreading rapidly through the walls of the doomed jet.
A nearly five-year investigation by Canada’s Transportation Safety Board concluded that an electrical short circuit, likely from the wiring of the in-flight entertainment system, ignited the covering of the thermal acoustic insulation in the plane’s fuselage.
At 10:18 AT the controller requests SR 111 to descend to 3,000 feet. The pilots respond with a requested altitude of 8,000 feet until the cabin is ready for landing. At 10:20, the flight crew discussed internally the dumping of fuel based on the aircraft’s gross weight, and on their perception regarding the aircraft condition, and agreed to dump fuel.
At 10:21 p.m. Flight 111 informs flight control it must dump fuel before landing.
“Swissair one eleven when you have time could I have the number of souls on board and your fuel onboard please for emergency services,” says an air traffic controller.
“Roger, at the time fuel onboard is two three zero tonnes. We must dump some fuel. May we do that in this area during descent?” a pilot responds.
As smoke billowed through the cockpit a massive electrical failure disables all flight controls, including the lights.
Then at 10:24 p.m. another harrowing transmission.
“Swissair one eleven heavy is declaring emergency,” says one of the pilots, as the second pilot makes a simultaneous transmission in the cockpit confusion: “We are declaring emergency now.”
Audio from air traffic control captures the moment before they lose contact with the plane.
“What you have for last position on them when you lost them?”
“Down just around St. Margaret’s Bay”
“Then you are not talking to him anymore?”
“No, we are not talking to him and we don’t see him. He was dumping fuel last we heard.”
As radio contact ended, temperatures in the cockpit were rising rapidly, even causing aluminum fixtures to melt inside the aircraft.
At 10:31 p.m. residents in St. Margaret’s Bay in Nova Scotia were awoken by a thunderous sound as Swiss Air Flight 111 struck the frigid water, nose first and almost upside down, killing all 229 onboard.
In the days following the crash, Nova Scotia medical examiner John Butt was tasked with sorting the recovered arms, legs, and other body parts in an attempt to identify each victim.
Just two days after the crash, Butt — along with others involved in the recovery operation — addressed an audience of 600 people, including relatives of victims, at the Lord Nelson hotel in Halifax.
“I was the last person [to speak],” said Butt looking back on the 20th anniversary of the Swiss Air tragedy. “I only had one thing to say so I said it and that was ‘I’m sorry to tell you that you will never see any of your loved ones again.’ That was a very heavy duty piece of information.”
“The strength of the people in the room was actually remarkable,” he said. “There were maybe three or four people who cried out audibly but the rest of them were just in silence.”
By Dec. 11 all victims were identified, according to Butt.
In 2003, following an investigation that took 4.5 years and cost $57 million, the Transportation Safety Board released its report. It made 23 air safety recommendations that ranged from urging regulators to make airlines teach flight and cabin crews an aggressive firefighting strategy to calling for emergency power sources to keep vital flight and voice recorders running.
It also urged regulators to develop tests and standards for flammability for all insulation materials on commercial jets.
A memorial will be held Sept. 2 near Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia to commemorate the 20 years since the tragedy.
For Butt, he remembers kindness and strength of the more than 3,000 people who worked on the recovery effort that included local fishermen, tour boat operators, the Canadian Forces, the Canadian Coast Guard, the RCMP and the United States Navy.
“The goodness of people to one another. I think that was what made an impression on me,” he said. “That does sort of fade over time when you get back to the brutality we have in our lives at some times.
“This was a demonstration of people who really had a focus on something and really wanted to make life better for other people.”
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