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Remembering Swissair 15 years later

It's hard to believe that it will be 15 years next Monday but it was as if the world fell from the sky when Swissair Fight 111 plunged into the cold 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 live in this region.

Even after all this time, I still have vivid memories of the night of September 2, 1998. I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to forget the events. It was dreary and foggy, the kind of night ripe for tragedy when, just before 11 p.m., one of our reporters called me at home to say he was on his way to the scene of a reported plane crash somewhere near Blandford. At that point he had no idea how serious it was.

A decade and a half later, we know the full scope of this disaster whose 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 those who reported on the story. In the aftermath of the disaster, media from around the world converged on the South Shore. As the community paper, we were there beside them and held our own. Admittedly, it was sometimes overwhelming, but we rose to the challenge.

I speak for other staff members when I say that covering this catastrophe is one of the most emotionally draining stories I've worked on in my 35-plus-year career. We experienced sights, sounds and emotional sensations that left us numb. To be sure, it 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.

On that fateful night, an army of volunteers immediately sprung 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. Much to their distress, they quickly learned, there were none.

Faced with the heartbreaking reality that death had visited their community that Wednesday night, these compassionate people stayed on to help in the recovery effort after 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 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 - that is the South Shore way.

At the height of the rescue-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. We tried to be sensitive, but as sometimes happens, the truth can seem sensational, particularly to those on the outside critiquing everything we do. 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. Yes, people found some details offensive or distasteful, and we also found them shocking, but we believed then, as we do now, they must be told.

It is impossible to cover a story of such destruction and death without revealing some intimate details. There were times in the days following September 2, 1998, that we felt overwhelmed by the facts, but we also knew the public had to be kept fully informed. So we pushed forward. We were careful not to spoon-feed only the less "sensational" facts to the public. People needed and deserved to know the whole truth about what was happening in their community so they could be prepared for any potential fallout.

Some things get in your head and they stay there. This tragedy left a legacy of painful memories. 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, pass her infant to a man standing next to her and then try to throw herself in the cold Atlantic. 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 15 years later. Their lives will never be the same again as I am sure they are reminded of their emotions every time the anniversary of this catastrophe rolls around.

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 we 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.

E-mail me: editorial@southshorenow.ca


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