A fruitless search for crash survivors All 229 aboard die as Swissair Flight 111 goes down in Atlantic

'The scene is very grisly'

Swissair Crash

September 04, 1998|By BOSTON GLOBE

PEGGYS COVE, Nova Scotia -- Passengers aboard Swissair Flight 111 apparently spent their final terrifying minutes Wednesday night struggling into survival gear while crew members gave safety instructions and the pilot made a desperate descent toward the safety of Halifax International Airport after reporting smoke on board.

The McDonnell-Douglas MD-11 jet smashed into the cold Atlantic about five miles south of this picturesque fishing village, killing all 229 people aboard the flight bound for Geneva from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

According to Canadian investigators, the crash occurred 16 long minutes after the pilot radioed the first distress call reporting smoke in the cabin and passengers were told to ready themselves for an emergency landing.

The reek of jet fuel suffused the salt spray yesterday as scores of search vessels, from Canadian naval frigates to small fishing boats, criss-crossed dozens of square miles of sea blanketed with the detritus of disaster -- a child's "Hello Kitty" daypack, bits of fuselage and corpses rolling in the heavy swell.

Some of the several dozen bodies retrieved from the sea were clad in life jackets. Most were so badly mutilated that it was impossible to determine whether they had suffered burns or other injuries that might suggest an explosion.

The cause of the crash remained a mystery, although officials in Ottawa and Washington were quick to play down the possibility of a terrorist bomb.

"Our preliminary indications do not point toward terrorism or some other criminal activity," said Jim Margolin, a spokesman for the FBI, adding that the federal law enforcement agency had not dispatched a team to Canada. Investigators are working on the scene at New York's JFK airport.

Searchers last night had all but abandoned hope of finding survivors. "We are continuing to look, but the sea is cold, and time is passing," said Cmdr. Rick Town of the Canadian navy.

Vessels and aircraft continued to scour the sea in an intensive effort to locate the nearly 200 bodies still missing, but the emphasis of the search was shifting to a "technical search" for flight recorders and wreckage that might explain the horrific crash.

The majority of victims were Americans; Swissair reported that 136 passengers and one crew member were U.S. citizens.

Swissair, an international airline with one of the world's best safety records, refused to release passenger lists until all family members were notified. In addition to the Americans, a spokesman said, the dead include 41 Swiss nationals, 30 French citizens and a number of other nationalities.

Canadian search officials said it was impossible to give an accurate count of bodies retrieved so far because searchers were often finding only incomplete remains.

"The scene is very grisly, very confusing," said Lt. Cmdr. Glenn Chamberlain of Canada's Maritime Atlantic Command, specifying only that "dozens" of bodies had been taken aboard vessels.

The effort was hampered by high waves and occasional rain squalls, although visibility started improving around midday. Tides and wind left debris spread across a wide swath of sea. The stench of aviation fuel or the sight of torn bodies caused the eyes of searchers to stream tears.

"It was the most terrible sight I've ever seen on the sea," said Craig Sanford, operator of a whale-watching boat that was among the first vessels to reach the scene in the rain-lashed blackness. "There were bodies and pieces of people floating among chunks of Styrofoam, cabin panels and luggage."

Through the blackness of early morning, Canadian rescue helicopters dropped parachute flares whose eerie orange glow coupled with the sweep of searchlights provided the only illumination for the fishing boats, naval frigates, coast guard craft, police vessels and even a Dutch cruise ship that started converging on the sea site within an hour of the crash.

"We came out full of hope for survivors," said Maj. Donald LeBlanc, pilot of a military Sea Stallion chopper that flew over the wreckage for hours before dawn. "We had night vision goggles and were popping flares, but there was nothing to see but the debris scattered everywhere."

The doomed aircraft was cruising at an altitude of 33,000 feet in Canadian airspace a little over an hour after taking off from New York at 8: 18 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time when the pilot reported smoke in the cockpit and urgently requested permission to reverse course and head for Boston's Logan Airport, according to Canadian transportation safety officials.

But controllers directed Capt. Urs Zimmermann to head for Halifax because it was closer.

Canadian air traffic controllers put the plane into a pattern to dump fuel. It was not clear whether fuel was jettisoned.

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