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Locals Aided Crash Rescue Efforts

September 3, 1998

PEGGY’S COVE, Nova Scotia (AP) _ First there was a deafening explosion, then not a sound.

``All the crickets stopped,″ said Darrell Fralick, one of 60 residents of this tiny fishing village of pastel homes and sunbleached, granite boulders. ``It was dead silent.″

Some people stepped out on their porches, gazing over St. Margaret’s Bay, where the sound had come from.

Wilfred Morash, a resident of nearby Blandford, described the noise as ``a huge crash, like thunder.″ Because he has a police scanner, he learned quicker than most what the cause of the noise was: ``The alarms went off, and they said a plane had gone down in Peggy’s Cove.″

John Campbell first learned what had happened when he saw reports on television that a plane had crashed into the cold, inky blue waters off the Nova Scotia coast.

He rounded up his crew and set out on his whale-watching boat, ``So Much to Sea,″ heading out of Peggy’s Cove into the churning seas to see if he could help.

A few miles out, the smell of jet fuel stung his sinuses.

``You could taste it,″ he said. He warned his crew not to toss their cigarettes into the water.

As military flares briefly illuminated the water, the men were stunned to see, floating in their usual fishing waters, debris and bodies from a Swissair flight bound from New York to Geneva.

``It was just a big pile of everything you would find in a plane,″ Campbell said. ``There were seat cushions, piles of wood and lots of styrofoam.″

By the time Campbell’s crew arrived, other fishing boats were trolling the waters, hoping to save someone. They found no one.

Standing outside his home, a stone’s throw from crashing surf, Fralick, who oversees tourism for Peggy’s Cove, saw emergency lights snake across the shoreline. Soon the Canadian armed forces called to ask him to unlock the public restrooms because they were heading for Peggy’s Cove.

At about 3 a.m., the Royal Canadian Mounted Police borrowed Campbell’s boat.

That’s about the time the commotion woke up Don and Mary Ellen DeBoer, a Wayne, N.J., couple vacationing at the Breakwater Inn.

``We were woken up by the flares over the water,″ Don DeBoer said. ``It looked like the moon was out.″

As day broke Thursday, giant helicopters criss-crossed the sky above a Navy frigate about three miles off the coast.

Although authorities eventually took over the search, local fishermen continued to pull debris out of the water and turn it over to officials.

The residents who had spontaneously volunteered to help save lives watched helplessly as shattered wood, twisted metal, torn pieces of rug, shoes, a purse, a necktie, and an infant sling sailed into town on police boats. Three men lowered the Canadian and U.S. flags to half-staff.

The bodies of the victims were taken to the Shearwater military base about 35 miles away. Their personal belongings were placed in plastic bags and catalogued.

About 15 miles off the coast, a child’s dark blue sweater, papers, a brown leather purse and a page from a math textbook floated amid body parts on rolling ocean swells.

Throughout the day, details of the disaster were delivered by Canadian authorities to reporters camped at the Sou’ Wester Gift Shop and Restaurant. The military set up cots under large tents in preparation for a long stay.

Walking away from a tangle of rescue workers, reporters and cameras, Rabbi Mendel Feldman of Halifax headed out of town after a short visit.

He said he had come to help families and rescue workers deal with their grief, but was told he might be need more elsewhere.

``I was referred to Shearwater,″ he said, clutching a leather-bound volume of The Rabbi’s Guide, a collection of prayers.

``That would be the best place to help families.″