Related topics

Grief Surrounds Flight 111 Families

September 14, 1998

PEGGY’s COVE, Nova Scotia (AP) _ Grief has enveloped the hundreds of Flight 111 relatives visiting this little fishing village, flooding the cracks in their defenses as surely as the tide invades the rocky coast of Nova Scotia.

But how do you grieve for a body you don’t have? For a catastrophic disaster that leaves few physical traces it ever happened?

For the relatives of the 229 victims of Swissair Flight 111, the last 11 days have been a time of denial, a period of unspeakable sadness and loss amid overcast, foggy, nippy fall days.

And the real grieving hasn’t even begun, those who have been counseling them said.

``You can’t do any grief counseling _ it’s too soon,″ said Sally Budge, the chaplain of Halifax Airport who is leading a 40-member team of clergy ministering to the relatives.

In all, over 400 relatives have descended on Halifax through flights arranged by Swissair since the Sept. 2 crash.

In the first day or so, many relatives found it hard to believe the fatal crash had taken place off the nearby hamlet of Peggy’s Cove.

The shattered airplane lay submerged up to 190 feet below the ocean and several miles away from shore. There was no crash site to view _ just a military airport hangar where only 1 to 2 percent of the jet’s wreckage now lies.

Worse still, many of the bodies of the victims were submerged as well, broken into unrecognizable pieces. As of Sunday, just five of the 229 people on board the New York-to-Geneva MD-11 had been positively identified. Only one of those had been identified visually; the rest were matched through dental records and fingerprints.

``(At first) they were really figuring that they would still be able to take a body home,″ Budge said. ``They expected like in a car accident to say, `Now I can bury my loved one,′ and they went home not being able to do that.″

Seemingly benign objects that have been retrieved from the water _ a child’s shoe, a wallet, a briefcase _ are monumental for the families, keepsakes from a relative’s final moments.

Holed up in a Halifax hotel, each family has been assigned at least one ``caregiver,″ a Swissair employee, to help them answer questions and provide necessities ranging from toothpaste to diapers.

The healing has taken all forms. Two adult children of one victim had a fisherman bring them out near the crash site ``to swim in the water where their dad is,″ said Carolyn Coarsey-Rader, a psychologist at Georgia State University who spent five days in Halifax talking with family members.

For those two children, ``it was a real connection,″ said Coarsey-Rader, who has interviewed more than 250 survivors and family members of major commercial airline wrecks.

Coarsey-Rader, who produces training manuals for airlines on coping with a disaster, knows what it is to grieve. Her fiance, Jeff Warner, an airline executive, was killed along with more than 130 others in a Delta crash in Dallas in 1985.

Many relatives have been mourning privately this last week, but some have been seeking comfort from the other family members who are going through the same thing, counselors and clergy said.

Often, families who bond through the sorrow of an air disaster keep in touch for years, Coarsey-Rader said.

Many are now afraid of what may happen when they go home.

``They think they might be cut off or not kept informed″ of the investigation, Swissair employee Christine Hily said.

Update hourly