229 Killed in Canada Swissair Crash
Sep. 04, 1998
PEGGY'S COVE, Nova Scotia (AP) _ The 229 people aboard Swissair Flight 111 had time to prepare for the worst while the pilots struggled in vain to keep the smoking, groaning jetliner aloft long enough for an emergency landing.
Some passengers donned their life vests during the several minutes before the MD-11 jumbo jet crashed and broke apart Wednesday night in choppy seas off Nova Scotia, Swissair officials said Thursday. The plane, which carried 137 Americans, left a slick of jet fuel, floating luggage and human remains, but no survivors.
``When you saw how small the pieces of fragments were, you could tell it must have been a pretty horrific crash,'' said Jim Buckley, skipper of a whaling boat that joined a makeshift flotilla that fruitlessly searched for people to rescue. The cause of the crash was not known.
By nightfall Thursday, authorities said about 60 bodies had been recovered, as well as an array of aircraft parts. But Lt. Commander Jacques Fauteux, one of the search coordinators, said none of the pieces was larger than an automobile.
Fauteux said more than 1,000 people were still involved in the search.
Aboard the jet flown by one of the world's safest airlines were 14 crew members and 215 passengers. There were two infants, several United Nations employees and one of the foremost leaders in the global fight against AIDS, Dr. Jonathan Mann.
Swiss tennis star Marc Rosset was scheduled to return on the ill-fated flight after losing at the U.S. Open tennis tournament, but he changed his mind and decided to stay in New York an extra night.
``It was a strange feeling when you realize that for just changing your mind you are still alive,'' Rosset said Thursday.
The Geneva-bound plane departed New York's Kennedy International Airport at 8:18 p.m. EDT Wednesday and crashed 90 minutes later, at 9:48 p.m. EDT near Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia, Swissair spokesman Jean-Claude Donzel said.
Sixteen minutes passed between the crew's first report of trouble _ including smoke in the cockpit, in Canadian airspace at 33,000 feet _ and the plane's disappearance from radar scopes at about 8,000 feet, according to Roy Bears of the Canadian Transportation Safety Board.
Five minutes after the aircraft crew reported the smoke and headed toward Halifax, they began descending to dump fuel, said Tony Rushton, vice president of the Canadian air traffic controllers' union.
In another five minutes the crew declared an emergency, and just moments later, the aircraft's transponder, which automatically transmits its identity and altitude, stopped functioning, he said.
Controllers monitored the plane on radar until all contact was finally lost.
The pilot, Urs Zimmermann, 50, tried to coax the plane to an emergency landing at the Halifax airport, 35 miles from the crash site. The pilot initially proposed heading for Boston, but air traffic controllers pointed out Halifax was closer _ 42 miles compared to 192 miles.
Swissair said the plane was seven to 10 minutes away from the Halifax airport, when it plunged into waters about 150 feet deep.
Canadian experts are leading the investigation into what caused the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board in Washington sent 10 experts to Canada and experts from Switzerland also were deployed.
Canadian officials and the White House said there was no indication the crash resulted from a terrorist act. The Canadians said their intelligence services were nonetheless in contact with the FBI.
FBI Director Louis Freeh said his agents were examining the passenger list and working to ensure key evidence was properly preserved.
In towns along the scenic but often treacherous Nova Scotia coast, residents reported hearing sputtering noises from an aircraft passing overhead, then a thundering crash.
``The motors were still going, but it was the worst-sounding deep groan that I've ever heard,'' said Claudia Zinck-Gilroy.
Dozens of fishing boats and coast guard ships hurried to the crash site, about six miles off the coast of Peggy's Cove. The picturesque fishing village _ population 60 _ is popular with tourists for its pirate lore and much-photographed lighthouse, but the area also is known for shipwrecks and other maritime tragedies.
After the first few hours of the nightlong search, the mood among boat crews turned grim when reports of survivors proved false. Instead, boat after boat radioed to a naval command vessel that more body bags were needed to cradle human remains scattered among aircraft debris over several square miles of the Atlantic.
Searchlights from boats, helicopters and planes illuminated the area during the night. Heavy surf _ a remnant of Hurricane Danielle _ hampered the first hours of the rescue effort and rain fell until dawn.
``It's real ugly,'' said Craig Sanford, operator of a whale-watching boat that was one of the first vessels on the scene. ``You see Styrofoam floating, chunks of wood, panels, the odd body here and there. It's not a nice scene.'' Weather cleared during the day, and the sea settled into rolling swells.
Body parts, a child's dark blue sweater, a page from a math textbook and a leather purse drifted in the inky blue water.
The first three dozen bodies recovered were taken to a temporary morgue at the Canadian Forces Base Shearwater, 30 miles to the east. Twenty doctors, including dentists and pathologists, worked to identify remains.
Searchers said they had located a chunk of the plane's fuselage believed to be intact on the ocean floor. Divers planned to search for the flight recorders, which could help determine the cause of the disaster.
Swissair and its partner, Delta Airlines, were flying relatives from New York and Switzerland to Halifax. Nova Scotia officials offered to provide 900 hotel rooms for the families, and pledged to protect their privacy as they faced the grim chore of identifying loved ones.
Philippe Bruggisser, the head of Swissair's parent company SAirGroup, said the airline would pay out $20,000 in immediate financial aid to victims' families who request it. This was in addition to any compensation due under international law.
Swissair said the passenger list would not be released until family members are notified. In addition to the 136 American passengers and an American crew member, it said 39 Swiss nationals and 30 French citizens were killed. Others were from Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy, Greece, Saudi Arabia, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iran, Spain, St. Kitts and Russia.
The United Nations confirmed that seven U.N. workers returning to offices in Geneva and the wife of one of the officials were on board.
``Any one of us could have been on that plane,'' U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said in New York. ``It's a flight we take frequently.''
All 185 national flags outside U.N. headquarters were lowered to half-staff in mourning, he said, and a staff memorial service was planned. An impromptu memorial service was also held in a downtown Geneva church late Thursday.
It was the first fatal crash of a Swissair plane since Oct. 7, 1979, when one of its DC-8s overshot the runway in Athens, Greece, and burst into flames. Fourteen people were killed.
Swissair will check its 15 remaining MD-11s in the wake of Wednesday's crash, Bruggisser said. He said the fleet will be brought back into service once it is established there are no technical problems _ a process could take days or months, depending on what investigators discover.
The plane that crashed Wednesday was put into service in August 1991. The aircraft underwent a major overhaul in 1996 and received its latest one-day check Aug. 10, Swissair reported. Boeing spokesman Russ Young said it had completed more than 6,000 flights and 35,000 flight hours.
The McDonnell Douglas MD-11 is a jet known for its reliability, even though its manufacturer, Boeing, has announced plans to discontinue the model in 2000.