Wednesday, September 3, 2008
A memorial service has been held in Nova Scotia, Canada to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Swissair Flight 111 disaster. None of the 229 people on board survived the aircraft’s impact with the sea on September 2, 1998.
Hundreds of search and rescue personnel and local fishermen were mobilised after the crash in St. Margaret’s Bay near Halifax to recover fragments of both the aircraft and the victims. The state of the human remains was such that identifying them resulted in what would remain the largest DNA identification operation up until the World Trade Centre collapsed.
At the ceremony, attended by around 100 people, 229 heart-shaped stones crafted from beach rocks and simply decorated with painted stars flowers and hearts were available for the mourners to take and place at the foot of the memorial at Bayswater, one for each of the 229 names upon the granite monument. Many flowers were also laid there.
The aircraft was a wide-bodied jet which had departed John F.Kennedy International Airport in New York at 8:18 p.m. 53 minutes after takeoff pilot Urs Zimmerman and co-pilot Stephan Loew smelt smoke in the cockpit and within three more minutes smoke was visible. The plane, by then in Canadian airspace, tried to reach Halifax Airport but never made it, hitting the water at around 9:31 p.m. at 350 mph (563 kph).
The cause of the disaster was determined to be highly flammable insulating foam, which caught light after an arcing electrical wire triggered a small fire. The fire was ferocious enough to destroy critical power cables, leaving the aircraft uncontrollable.
The investigation was one of aviation’s costliest and most complicated, costing the Transportation Safety Bureau of Canada $60 million. The TSB produced 23 recommendations to prevent a recurance of the disaster, but only five have been implemented in the decade since the crash, including some flammable material restrictions and electrical safety improvements.
Several people at the hour-long multi-faith ceremony complained at the perceived lack of action. “How come after 10 years we are hearing reports that only five of some 20 recommendations for airplanes have been carried out? What has gone wrong with the bureaucracy – the inertia for that?” asked Rabbi David Ellis. John Butt, who headed the identification effort as Nova Scotia’s chief medical examiner at the time, said it was ‘disappointing’ that action had not been taken and that it was “not very good to think about flying in an aircraft when you know recommendations have been made about the standards of safety and they haven’t been adopted.”
TSB member Jonathan Seymour was also critical of the lack of action, particularly on the US Federal Aviation Administration‘s part. “It’s just that obviously after 10 years you would have hoped that things would have moved on quite significantly further than they have. It’s frustrating that we’re still that far away from where we might want to be after 10 years,” he said.