By Alex Cooke, The Canadian Press
HALIFAX — A service will be held in Bayswater, N.S., Sunday afternoon to reflect on those affected by a disastrous airplane accident 20 years ago, which claimed 229 lives and touched countless others.
First responders searched in vain for survivors of the crash on Sept. 2, 1998, after Swissair Flight 111 plunged into Nova Scotian waters after an electrical fire spread through the cockpit, causing a catastrophic failure.
Rev. Louis Quennelle of the Anglican Parish of Blandford will perform the 20th anniversary service at the Bayswater Memorial Site, where the remains of many of those lost in the accident are interred.
Quenelle, who was working as an Air Canada flight attendant in Halifax at the time of the crash, said 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.
He said some family members, community members, and people from the various emergency groups involved in the disaster’s response, including police officers and members of the military, will attend the service.
“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 the service will both commemorate the people who died in the plane, as well as the Nova Scotians who responded to the disaster.
She 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.
Mi’kmaq drummer Catherine Martin will open the ceremony with a funeral song, and the service will be closed with Chester-St. Margaret MLA Hugh MacKay playing the bagpipes.
The service will be followed by a reception at the Blandford Community Centre.