By Alex Cooke, The Canadian Press
HALIFAX — Stephen Thompson clutched a tissue Sunday afternoon, unable to hold back tears during an emotional service honouring his father and 228 others who died in a horrific airplane crash 20 years ago.
Thompson attended the service along with others who lost loved ones when Swissair Flight 111 from New York City to Geneva crashed into Nova Scotian waters on the evening of Sept. 2, 1998, leaving no survivors.
During the service at the Swissair Memorial Site in Bayswater, N.S., Rev. Louis Quennelle of the Anglican Parish of Blandford told the dozens gathered for the ceremony that while the events on that night were tragic, they helped bring many communities and friendships together.
He noted that it’s important to remember the first responders who helped in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
Family members of the victims laid flowers at the foot of the large granite memorial, erected overlooking the water where the passenger plane violently ended its final flight about eight kilometres offshore.
The disaster, which began with an electrical fire that spread through the cockpit and caused a catastrophic failure, eventually led to improved safety measures on planes, including certain flammable materials no longer being used on aircraft.
Quenelle, who was working as an Air Canada flight attendant in Halifax at the time of the crash, said in an earlier interview his experience in the field affected the way he thought about the crash.
“We all as a group identified very much with the Swissair crew, because we knew what the last moments of their lives would have been, and what they would have been doing, because of our training,” he said.
“Emotionally, there was a connection there.”
At the time, Quenelle was the local union’s president, and he said there was an ongoing pilot strike when the Swissair crash happened.
But after the news broke, striking pilots and laid-off flight attendants volunteered to operate shuttle flights between Halifax and New York for the families of the victims.
“In many ways, the victims of Swissair go well beyond the people who died,” said Quenelle.
“There were people whose lives were very irrevocably changed, and we need to remember them, and help them move forward, and heal, and help regain their joy in life.”
Claire Mortimer, who lost her father and stepmother in the crash, said she’s heard of at least two suicides by people involved in the recovery efforts, noting that while the pain of her loss has largely healed, some of the people who helped recover the bodies of the victims may still be dealing with the psychological toll of their grisly duty.
“This is a tragedy as much as the plane crash was a tragedy,” she said, referencing one of the men who died by suicide. “I consider people such as (the man,) who took their own lives as a result of their involvement in the Swissair site, to be a victim of Swissair as much as my father. These people need to be recognized and cared for.”
Mortimer, a nurse practitioner who specializes in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder therapy, said she hopes to get in touch with first responders who worked at the site of the crash, as well as anyone else in the community who may have been affected, to help those who may be struggling connect with the resources they need.
Although she lives in Maine, Mortimer has travelled to Nova Scotia so many times she considers it as a second home.
She said the support from the province was instrumental during her healing process.
“It just was such a warm, loving experience, to be embraced by so many people,” she said, adding that she, in turn, wants to help others affected by the crash heal in their own way.
Of the 229 people who died in the fated flight, 14 were crew and the rest were passengers, most of whom came from the U.S., France, or Switzerland.
Notable figures on board included well-known AIDS researcher Jonathan Mann, Pierce Gerety of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNICEF adviser Yves De Roussan, and Ingrid Acevedo, public relations director for UNICEF.
Approximately 2,800 people were involved in the recovery and some 200 divers ventured 55 metres below the ocean surface in search of human remains and parts of the aircraft.
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 last 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,” he said.
Also, air crew are 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.