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Families gather for 20th Swissair anniversary
HALIFAX -- For Adrienne Carter, it still seems like yesterday that her phone rang in the middle of the night, waking her to an unimaginable horror playing out far from her New Jersey home.

The 2 a.m. call came from her father in Baton Rouge, La., who had hours earlier driven her sister, brother in law and their young son to the airport to board a plane for Europe where the young couple was excited to introduce their baby boy to his French grandparents.

Carter immediately turned on her TV to find early reports of a plane - Swissair Flight 111 - having gone down off Nova Scotia with little prospect that any of the 229 people on board could have survived.

The Swissair disaster's 'bright' legacy: Friendships as enduring as the sorrow
Carter says she knew almost instantly that her sister, Karen Maillet, her cherished nephew, Robert, and his father, Denis Maillet, were among those who died on that fateful night 20 years ago.

"It created a hole and time-stamped a mark on my life's timeline," she said in an email as she reflected on the 20th anniversary of her sister's death on Sept. 2, 1998.

"(It's) as if time stood still in that instant and part of me will forever be in that moment."

Carter said she will be getting together with her elderly parents in Baton Rouge this Sunday to mark the anniversary of the crash off Peggy's Cove, where the jetliner plunged into the water after an electrical fire spread through the cockpit, causing a catastrophic failure.

A service is also being held Sunday at a Swissair memorial in Bayswater, N.S., where remains of many of those lost in the accident are interred.

Carter says she and her family would have liked to attend both the service and a gathering at a local community centre, but decided it was best to be at the side of her parents, who are both turning 90 in the coming days.

"All of us kids had thought about being there. But for me, I've never left there ... a piece will forever be at Peggy's Cove," she wrote. "I am sure the family will gather around them on Sunday with heavy hearts, but not whole hearts ... and the missing parts will always be at Peggy's Cove."

Claire Mortimer, who lost her father, John, and stepmother, Hilda, in the crash, helped organize the service that will include readings from religious leaders, songs and poems from a book written by a Nova Scotia woman about the disaster.

She makes regular visits to the area from her home in Maine and says the stunning ocean vista that sits as a backdrop to the granite memorial still provides a degree of comfort for her, years after her father perished in the crash as he and his wife headed to southern France for a vacation.

"That is really the only grave I have to visit," she said in an interview Friday. "It's right next to the ocean where the plane went down, I mean, it's very significant. But it's also very beautiful and it's a place that he would have loved."

Mortimer also said she will share her concerns about the legacy of the crash on Nova Scotians who raced to the waters off Peggy's Cove in a futile bid to find survivors, discovering instead a grisly array of human remains and plane wreckage mixed with a mundane assortment of personal belongings.

She said she worries that people who suffered from the psychological toll of recovering and sifting through body parts may not be getting the help they need.

In particular, some of the 200 divers who ventured 55 metres below the ocean surface found themselves in a macabre world of shattered fuselage and human remains.

"I want to express how much I appreciate that our loss is still recognized, but I actually feel like the underlying, unspoken reason why this is so important to recognize every year is because of how deeply it has affected the people in these communities," she said.

"I consider them to be victims of Swissair the same as my father was."

Mortimer says she has heard of two suicides by people who were involved in the recovery effort and is hoping to provide expertise to counsellors and medical professionals who may be able to reach out to those still needing help.

Carter too said she has an enduring respect for the kindness locals displayed and their efforts to salvage what they could, and she remains in touch with some who helped. After travelling to Halifax with her siblings soon after the crash, she said she was even able to find her sister's passport and one of baby Robert's toys amongst the thousands of recovered items.

Vic Gerden led the investigation for the Transportation Safety Board, in what would become one of the costliest and most complicated probes in the history of aviation disasters.

In 2003, he released a 337-page report that concluded the fire started when an arcing wire ignited a flammable insulation covering, or MPET, in the ceiling. The report included 23 recommendations on everything from flight recorders and material flammability to in-flight firefighting and what pilots should do if they smell smoke.

In a statement this week, Gerden said 20 of those have led to improved safety measures on planes. "Perhaps the most significant change is that certain flammable materials such as MPET are no longer used in aircraft, reducing the risk of in-flight fires."

Air crew are also now trained to "quickly start planning for immediate landing until they are assured there is no fire threat to the aircraft or occupants," when smoke is detected.
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