Flight 111: A Year in the Life of a Tragedy

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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.


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Such items offered almost unbearably poignant reminders of the shattered lives of those aboard Flight - 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 , 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, and the two men had flown the same aircraft several days previously without problems. Despite a history of some mishaps, the MD is considered to have, overall, a good service record. A three-engine, wide-cabin aircraft that evolved from the DC, 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 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 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 began smoothly enough. The plane passed final inspection at Kennedy airport and lifted smoothly into the air at p.

Flight A Year in the Life of a Tragedy by Stephen Kimber

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, m. The first sign of trouble came about 56 minutes into the flight. At about the aircraft had entered into the Atlantic time zone, one hour ahead of eastern daylight time , the Swissair crew called the Moncton, N. 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 km away the distance to Boston was km. The captain and co-pilot, apparently having donned smoke masks and goggles, began bringing the plane to an altitude under 3, m. 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 , 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.

‘Treasure, it just makes people crazy’: The mystery of the lost diamonds of Swissair Flight 111

We are starting vent now. We have to land immediately. 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. 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. 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.

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 members of the media. Jack Campbell, who operates a Peggy's Cove Web site, reported receiving more than 21, "hits" in the first three days after the crash, ranging from best wishes to requests for more information.

Pilot suffered emotional breakdown in cockpit before crashing plane

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. 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.

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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 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 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.

She says that her husband's compassion was critical in supporting her through that tragedy. I think Urs would be happy to see how we are living. And in a way he is with us," she says. Sign up for our free newsletters and get the top stories delivered to your inbox. Click here to see more newsletters. All rights reserved. The content of the website by swissinfo. It is intended for private use only.

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