Swissair 111 Tragedy | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Swissair 111 Tragedy

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on September 14, 1998. Partner content is not updated.

The 60 residents of Peggy's Cove, N.S., have few lessons to learn when it comes to either nature's beauty - or its sometimes terrible power.

Swissair 111 Tragedy

The 60 residents of Peggy's Cove, N.S., have few lessons to learn when it comes to either nature's beauty - or its sometimes terrible power. The village, 43 km south of Halifax, is one of the most photographed spots in North America, with a stunningly picturesque harbor that is visited annually by thousands of tourists. For almost two centuries, residents of Peggy's Cove and other nearby communities have fished the Atlantic Ocean, regularly confronting sudden squalls, towering waves and icy waters - and occasional losses at sea have become a fact of life. But when death came visiting one night last week, it did so in a different fashion: man-made, falling from the skies. Many local residents did not even hear the uneven, sputtering engines of the doomed Swissair Flight 111 when it flew overhead shortly before 10:30 p.m. Atlantic time. It was moments later, when there was a sound alternately described as either a thud or a huge thunderclap 13 km out to sea, that they became aware of disaster at hand. "It was like a shock wave," said Randy Daniel, a 40-year-old sound engineer from nearby Chester. "We went outside to look for lightning. That's when the sirens started and we knew it was something awful."

By week's end, area residents were adjusting to a new, generally unwelcome form of renown for their rugged stretch of coastline - as the nearest site on land to the second-worst air disaster ever in Canadian territory. The crash of the Swissair MD-11, which had left New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport en route to Geneva, killed all 229 people aboard, and left investigators puzzling over both its cause and circumstances. The last message recorded from the doomed aircraft by air traffic controllers was: "We have to land immediately." It was 10:24 p.m. and the plane was at 2,910 m. Six minutes later, it crashed into the icy Atlantic.

Although no cause had been formally ruled out by week's end, authorities from both Canada and the United States say it is unlikely that sabotage was involved. About 80 investigators from the two countries and Switzerland have been assigned to the crash, under the direction of federal transportation officials and Royal Canadian Mounted Police - who have dubbed the ongoing recovery effort Operation Perseverance. They are focusing on the cause of the smoke that was reported by the pilots in the cockpit about 20 minutes before the disaster - the first sign of catastrophe ahead. One theory under consideration is that toxic smoke caused by faulty wiring may have disoriented the pilots - with the result that when they tried to dump fuel shortly before their planned emergency landing, they inadvertently released all of it.

Whatever the cause, the impact of the crash, and the lives lost, sent reverberations around the world. Although the majority of victims were either American, French or Swiss, the passenger list included people from 11 other countries - including one Canadian, 41-year-old Yves de Roussan, a Montreal-born official with the children's aid agency UNICEF who was based in Geneva. In all, there were seven officials from UN-related agencies aboard the aircraft: because Geneva and New York are the sites of the international body's two largest operations, the Swissair flight was often informally described as "the UN shuttle." And some friends and co-workers noted a bitter irony in the crash. "When you work for a humanitarian agency, there's always risk involved, particularly when you're posted in war-torn countries," one of de Roussan's colleagues told Maclean's. "But when it's such a tragic accident, it's a completely different circumstance - it's a waste."

Other victims included internationally renowned American AIDS researcher Dr. Jonathan Mann and his wife, Mary Lou Clements-Mann, a leading vaccine researcher and professor, and Bandar ibn Saud ibn Abdul Rahman, a member of Saudi Arabia's royal family. UN employee Pierce Gerety took the plane only because he had been bumped from two previous flights, while Swiss professional tennis player Marc Rosset survived because he decided, at the last minute, to change his flight and stay in New York to practise another day after his early-round loss in the U.S. Open.

In the wake of the tragedy, about 800 relatives of the victims travelled to Halifax - many of them on Swissair charter flights from New York and Switzerland. As the A310 Airbus from Zurich landed in fog and drizzle at Halifax International Airport on Friday, several passengers pulled the plane's blinds down to avoid the media throng. Most of the relatives made the trip to Peggy's Cove, where officials had set up a special isolated seaside area to allow them to look out towards the crash site. Several memorial services in different religious denominations were held over the weekend; some family members laid wreaths and collected jars of seawater to take home. Among those making the trip to Peggy's Cove was Peter Gerety of Southport, Conn., whose brother Pierce, director of the African Great Lakes operations for the United Nations' High Commissioner of Refugees, had been on his way back to Geneva from a family reunion. Gerety, whose brother would have turned 57 on Labour Day, did not come back from Peggy's Cove empty-handed. "I just felt like having a memento," he said, explaining the two rocks he brought back with him. "It's such a beautiful place - and that's the irony of it. So I thought I'd have a memento for my sister-in-law."

Residents of Peggy's Cove and surrounding communities, meanwhile, did what they always do in times of crisis: pitched in to help. As soon as word of the crash spread, many took their boats out onto the choppy waters to begin the search, hoping to find survivors. They were joined shortly after by Canadian military frigates, aircraft, a submarine with sophisticated sonar equipment and Maritime Command search-and-rescue vessels, in scouring an estimated 78-square-kilometre patch of ocean. What they found was gruesome. Because of the horrific impact as the aircraft hit the water, Dr. John Butt, Nova Scotia's chief medical examiner, said that many of the human remains were "fragmented." John Campbell, whose 13-m fibre glass boat was one of the first on the accident scene, told Maclean's two days later that he was still in a state of disbelief. And the search experience, said local fisherman Robert Conrad, was one that participants "won't be rid of for the rest of their lives."

Among the priorities for the searchers is finding the telltale black boxes that contain flight data and cockpit recordings that would potentially offer key clues to the cause of the disaster. As of Saturday, searchers were nearing the discovery of one of the two boxes - but bad diving conditions delayed their efforts. Among the debris collected were personal effects, ranging from a sweater found floating on the oil-slicked water, to a Bible, a still-legible postcard of New York City, a necktie, children's toys, a handwritten diary and a birthday balloon. Such items offered almost unbearably poignant reminders of the shattered lives of those aboard Flight 111 - and the sheer sense of normalcy and routine with which passengers would have boarded the flight.

They would have had good reason for confidence: Swissair, whose last accident was in 1979, is renowned within the airline industry for its high safety standards, and the two pilots flying the aircraft, Urs Zimmermann, 50, and co-pilot Stefan Low, 36, were veterans with exemplary safety records. Zimmermann, in fact, had served as a flight instructor in the past for the Boeing MD-11, and the two men had flown the same aircraft several days previously without problems.

Despite a history of some mishaps, the MD-11 is considered to have, overall, a good service record. A three-engine, wide-cabin aircraft that evolved from the DC-10, it has been praised by experts for its reliability - although Boeing announced earlier this year that it is phasing out production because of low commercial demand. Over the years, the MD-11 has been involved in about a half-dozen incidents of varying seriousness. Most of those involved crew error. But wiring has been a potential problem in the MD-11. Two years ago, American aviation officials recommended wiring changes to the model because of concerns that a possible electrical fault could lead to fire or control problems.

Based on all the information pieced together last week from radar tracking and control tower conversations with the doomed aircraft, the final journey of Flight 111 began smoothly enough. The plane passed final inspection at Kennedy airport and lifted smoothly into the air at 8:18 p.m. From New York, it travelled eastward towards the Atlantic in a flight path that would take it over Nova Scotia, flying at an altitude of 9,900 m.

The first sign of trouble came about 56 minutes into the flight. At about 10:14 (the aircraft had entered into the Atlantic time zone, one hour ahead of eastern daylight time), the Swissair crew called the Moncton, N.B., air traffic control tower - which was responsible for the region. According to edited transcripts of the ensuing conversation that were made public Saturday, a voice - presumably that of Zimmermann - said, "We have smoke in the cockpit," and suggested Boston as an emergency landing point. The tower, in turn, cleared them to turn towards Boston, but asked if they preferred Halifax, about 129 km away (the distance to Boston was 555 km). "Affirmative," came the reply.

The captain and co-pilot, apparently having donned smoke masks and goggles, began bringing the plane to an altitude under 3,000 m. "We must dump some fuel," Flight 111 told the control tower. Twice, the control tower gave them permission to dump, and told them they were cleared to land. As a result of the decision to dump fuel and reduce altitude, the aircraft, which was within 46 km of the Halifax airport at one point, turned away from the city, flying in a U-pattern over the top of St. Margarets Bay. Federal transport officials said there were two good reasons for that decision: an emergency landing is safer without heavily loaded fuel tanks, and the aircraft, with the weight of the fuel, might have been too large and heavy to land on the Halifax runway without overshooting.

At about 10:24, as it began its final exchange with the control tower, the aircraft began dumping fuel. At the same time, the cockpit issued a final, chilling message: "We are declaring an emergency. We are starting vent now. We have to land immediately." At that point, said Vic Gerden, the chief inspector with the National Transportation Safety Board, the tone of the voice was garbled and muted, probably because of an oxygen mask. Six minutes later, said Gerden, "the aircraft contacted the sea."

Shortly before the crash occurred, the passengers - according to established procedure - would have been told to move into crash mode, tucking their heads into their knees with hands clasped around their legs. The final signal for that action from the cockpit to the crew seconds before impact would be the code words "Brace, brace." Just before it hit the water, the aircraft sheared off the top of a navigational buoy.

The impact of the crash caused buildings to shake and images on television sets to flicker as much as 15 km away. Still, some residents of Peggy's Cove did not realize precisely what had happened until they received telephone calls from friends who heard news reports - or from reporters in the United States and elsewhere who called local houses at random, seeking information. Almost immediately after that, local fishermen clambered into their vessels and began heading out to sea - despite the darkness and choppy 15° C waters - in search of survivors. On land, after the sirens wailed, many residents turned on all their house lights to light up the shoreline for the men at sea.

In the end, Maritime Command officials overseeing operations did not formally switch the description of their activities from "search and rescue" to the ominous "search and recovery" until 1 p.m., Friday - almost 39 hours after the aircraft went down. But for those on the scene of the accident, it became apparent long before that there was little hope of finding survivors. As boats and overhead helicopters cast ghostly light on the heaving ocean, the searchers were confronted by battered human remains and masses of debris. At least one vessel turned back: its crew was too appalled by the sight. And Ray Boutilier, 72, who travelled to the site a day after the crash, had previous experience recovering bodies from the sea while serving in the navy in the Second World War. But he gave up after one trip, calling this experience "even worse" than his war days.

Repeatedly, a small government of Canada vessel could be seen docking at a cordoned-off wharf, where it unloaded material recovered from the crash site. The human remains were put in a nearby refrigeration truck, and then taken to a makeshift morgue consisting of five refrigeration trucks set up at nearby CFB Shearwater. There, dental and pathology specialists worked on the difficult task of identifying remains, relying on a combination of past dental and medical records and DNA samplings supplied by families.

Along with the overriding air of shock and tragedy, there was also a sense of frustration among local residents at the manner in which their lives were suddenly turned upside down - especially by the 300 members of the media. "This is crazy," said local resident Audrey O'Leary, the owner of Peggy's Cove Bed-and-Breakfast, who first learned of the crash in a midnight call from a CNN reporter who found her number in a phone book. Jack Campbell, who operates a Peggy's Cove Web site, reported receiving more than 21,000 "hits" in the first three days after the crash, ranging from best wishes to requests for more information.

Perhaps the most uncomfortable people were the usually stoic fishermen who went to the site to help - and in the aftermath found themselves besieged with questions about an experience most were trying hard to forget. "They are doing what they can to avoid the media," said Conrad. At the same time, despite the exemplary behavior of most local residents, the RCMP had to issue public warnings that it would arrest anyone who found and failed to turn in wreckage from the site - after reports that some people had taken their boats out in search of souvenirs.

At the end of the week, officials refused to even reveal how many bodies had been recovered, citing their battered state and the difficulties of identification. Preliminary autopsies indicate that all the victims were killed on impact when the aircraft hit the water - and those examinations had not yet shown any indications of smoke on the victims, meaning any fire in the cabin was not widespread. When - or if - they are satisfied that they have done all they can to recover the remains of the 229 victims, authorities will turn their full attention to determining the cause of the crash.

The search for answers will be daunting. In the aftermath of the crash, some observers questioned whether the pilots' initial plan to land in Boston cost Flight 111 precious time in the air: authorities estimated the plane might have successfully landed at Halifax if it could have been kept aloft another seven to eight minutes. And authorities at Yarmouth Airport - located not far from where the plane passed over in its final minutes - said they could have accommodated a landing, and wondered why they were never informed of Flight 111's problems. But investigators are adamant that their early findings indicate one conclusion: based on the voice recordings from the control towers, said Gerden, the behavior of the pilots in their final minutes was appropriate to the circumstances and "fully professional." For now, what caused Flight 111 to fall from the sky remains a mystery. But for the families and friends of those who fell, the dreadful consequences are all too clear.

A Sound Like 'A Thunderclap'

After leaving New York City, Swissair Flight 111 was in the air for about 70 minutes before crashing into the waters of the Atlantic Ocean 13 km off Peggy's Cove, N.S., on the evening of Sept. 2. All times are Atlantic daylight time:

9:18 The Boeing MD-11 jet takes off from John F. Kennedy International Airport, quickly climbing to its cruising altitude of 9,900 m.

10:14 Pilot Urs Zimmermann reports smoke in the cockpit to regional air traffic controllers in Moncton, N.B. He requests a landing site and suggests Boston, 555 km from his position. Moncton offers him the alternative of Halifax, only 129 km away, and Zimmermann agrees.

10:18 Moncton notifies Halifax rescue centre of the plight of Flight 111. Zimmermann, meanwhile, says that before landing he has to dump fuel.

10:24 Zimmermann declares an emergency and says the plane must land immediately.

10:30 The jet slams into the Atlantic with a noise, according to witnesses, like "a thunderclap" after disappearing from radar screens.

A Terrible Toll

For centuries, the ocean has sustained the people of Atlantic Canada. But it has also exacted a huge toll in lives, sometimes hundreds at once. In this century alone, the waters off Canada's East Coast have often been the scene of large-scale disasters:

April 14, 1912: In the world's most famous marine tragedy, 1,522 lives were lost when the Titanic sank 590 km southeast of Newfoundland. The great liner, the largest and most luxurious then built, struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City. The ship took 2 1/2 hours to sink, but with insufficient lifeboats available for the more than 2,200 people aboard, only 705 survived. The bodies of 150 victims recovered from the sea were later buried in Halifax.

May 29, 1914: In dense fog, a Norwegian collier rammed the oceangoing Canadian Pacific passenger ship the Empress of Ireland in the St. Lawrence River near Rimouski. The high-speed collision ripped a giant hole in the liner's side, sinking it within 14 minutes. The Empress went down so quickly that passengers and crew had no time to enter its lifeboats, and 1,014 of the 1,479 people aboard died.

Dec. 6, 1917: In the crowded wartime harbor of Halifax, the French munitions ship Mont Blanc, loaded with 2,500 tonnes of TNT and other explosives, collided with the Belgian relief ship Imo. The resulting explosion was the largest manmade blast before Hiroshima - and the worst disaster ever seen in Canada. It killed 1,600 people, injured 9,000 and left 6,000 homeless, most of them in Halifax's working-class north end, virtually levelled by the explosion.

Feb. 18, 1942: An early morning storm drove the U.S. navy destroyer Pollux and its supply ship Truxtun onto the rocks at the southernmost tip of Newfoundland's Burin Peninsula, killing 203 crewmen. Bad as the disaster was, 185 sailors were saved by the heroic efforts of fishermen from the nearby outports of St. Lawrence and Lawn, who took to sea as soon as they heard the news. A grateful American government later built the U.S. Memorial Health Centre in St. Lawrence.

Oct. 14, 1942: Sixty kilometres from Port aux Basques on Newfoundland's southern coast, a Nazi U-boat torpedoed the ferryboat Caribou on its regular run from North Sydney, N.S. The defenceless vessel was carrying 237 passengers, only half of them military personnel, and 136 men, women and children died.

May 7, 1944: En route alone to St. John's, Nfld., after detaching itself from a Halifax-bound convoy, Royal Canadian Navy frigate Valleyfield was sunk by a U-boat 80 km southeast of Newfoundland's Cape Race. One of the RCN's worst losses in home waters took the lives of 125 crewmen.

Feb. 15, 1982: All 84 men aboard the Ocean Ranger, the world's largest oil rig, died when it sank in a fierce North Atlantic gale. Winds of 145 km/h and 18-m waves overwhelmed the Ranger's emergency ballast system. Rescue aircraft were unable to reach the site, 315 km east of St. John's, for eight hours, and even 22 workers who had escaped the sinking platform perished in icy seas before help arrived.

The Search for Hard Facts

The frustrated media mob tried to draw out Transportation Safety Board of Canada chief inspector Vic Gerden. "What were the Swissair pilot's last words?" repeated one reporter at the Peggy's Cove media briefing on Friday. "Was the cockpit fire set by a terrorist?" yelled another. Did the desperate pilot mistakenly empty his fuel tank, causing the plane to crash? Had the crew made the right decisions during the emergency? But Gerden, a low-key, scholarly looking man, refused to take the bait. "I don't deal with maybes or what-ifs," he said flatly.

He - and his team of investigators, which includes American and Swiss experts - prefer to deal with cold, hard facts. By week's end, they were just beginning the long, gritty search for answers to why Swissair Flight 111 plunged into the ocean. HMCS Okanagan searched for the critical flight recorder boxes. Transport Canada experts sifted through the collected debris from the plane. Forensic teams began examining the human remains, while RCMP bomb specialists and laboratory analysts probed the pieces of wreckage for traces of explosives. Even then, the aviation detectives face a huge challenge - extracting the truth from an airplane wreck that now sits in 45 m of icy North Atlantic water. "We possess few facts at the moment," conceded Benoît Bouchard, chairman of the Transport Safety Board.

The flight data and cockpit voice recorders - the all-important black boxes - would certainly send investigators in the right direction. Bill Waldlock, a professor and associate director of the Centre for Aerospace Safety Education in Prescott, Ariz., told Maclean's that the Swissair jet's flight data recorder is highly sophisticated. It is part of a new generation of recorders that can measure a hundred different elements on the plane, providing a more complete picture of how an aircraft was functioning than older models. "It will tell them a lot about the health of the airplane," Waldlock explained, "assuming it kept running right up until the end." By late Saturday, authorities said they had picked up the telltale acoustic homing signal of one of the recorders, and hoped to recover it soon.

And there is more hard slogging ahead for the investigators. Some of it - interviewing witnesses who saw or heard the flight go down, examining plane maintenance logs - resembles ordinary police work. But many of the techniques involved in other aspects of the investigation use sophisticated science, such as a remote-controlled submersible to search the bottom of the ocean, and hypersensitive lab equipment to test debris. As soon as any wreckage is lifted out of the water, it is examined by airplane-design specialists, Swissair experts and other MD-11 pilots looking for clues. "Sometimes, something by itself may not look important," said Gerden, "but perhaps when it is correlated with other information, conclusions can be drawn."

Forensic teams also face a challenge - a grisly one. By week's end, as soldiers combed the area shoreline to retrieve human remains, rescuers had retrieved more body parts than actual bodies. "Crashing on the water is equal in G-force to crashing into concrete," said Dr. John Butt, Nova Scotia's chief medical examiner. "It would seem to be a forgiving substance. It's not." And, he added, "identification is going to be a laborious procedure." And one that will almost certainly take weeks. The work will be done in a makeshift morgue at B hangar, a brown rectangular building on CFB Shearwater, across the harbor from Halifax. Unless all else fails, relatives of the victims will not be asked to endure the process of visually identifying family members. Instead, they are being encouraged to simply provide dental and medical records. Forensic teams - including doctors, dentists and radiographic technicians - will use those records, X-rays and personal effects to try to identify the victims. DNA analysis will also be an important part of the investigation: parents or siblings of victims are being asked to provide a genetic sample, which can then be matched to any unidentified remains.

Clues, the investigators maintain, could be almost anywhere. The Transportation Safety Board has asked for toxicology tests on the victims. Les Macey, the officer in charge of the RCMP's forensic lab in Halifax, says cyanide and carbon monoxide in human tissue could, for example, indicate a fire onboard. "It's just to try to add another piece to the puzzle," says Macey. Sometimes, it seems, small steps are the only hope of solving the biggest mysteries.

Maclean's September 14, 1998