On the evening of 2 September 1998, Swissair flight 111, a Boeing MD-11 bound for Geneve-Cointrin Airport (Geneva) from New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport, crashed into the the water near Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia at about 22:31, Atlantic daylight time. All 229 people aboard died, including one of my co-workers.

Four years later, the cause of the crash is unknown. What is known only takes us up until a few minutes before the crash. The first word of trouble was at 22:14:18 ADT when Swissair 111 (SWR111) declared Pan Pan Pan, the code phrase indicating non-emergent trouble. In the crew's words,
Swissair one-eleven heavy is declaring Pan Pan Pan. We have, uh, smoke in the cockpit. Uh, request immediate return, uh, to a convenient place, I guess, uh, Boston.
SWR111 was directed to Boston, acknowledging the new course at 22:14:50. One minute later the air traffic controller offered the pilot the option of going to Halifax instead, which was accepted at 22:15:38. During this time SWR111 descended from 33,000 feet to 29,000 feet. Another flight reported on Halifax weather at 22:16. From 22:16 to 22:21 there was constant conversation between control and SWR111 regarding course and altitude, with the control switching from Moncton to Halifax at 22:18:34. At 22:21 discussion centered around where to dump fuel. At 22:22 a short question in German within the cockpit was picked up on the air, essentially the pilot asking someone if they were using the emergency checklist for air conditioning smoke. At 22:24:28 SWR111 radioed that they had had to switch off autopilot, and at 22:24:45 they declared emergency,
Swissair one-eleven heavy is declaring emergency; (22:24:46.4 second voice overlap) Roger, we are between, uh, twelve and five thousand feet. We are declaring emergency now at, ah time, ah, zero-one-two-four. (Possible intercom sound toward end of transmission).
They started to dump fuel at 22:24:56,
Eleven heavy, we starting dump now, we have to land immediate,
and again declared emergency at 22:25:05,
And we are declaring emergency now, Swissair one-eleven.
No further word was heard from SWR111, and it is estimated that they crashed about 6 minutes later. The crash site was a 3 mile stretch of water off the coast of Nova Scotia, near Peggy's Cove, a popular destination for Nova Scotia tourists.

There was a report in the Wall Street Journal which states the pilot, Captain Uwe Zimmerman, and co-pilot Stefan Lowe, disagreed about the severity of the emergency. Apparently the cockpit voice recording reveals that the co-pilot wanted to immediately dump fuel and land as soon as possible, whereas the pilot thought the situation was stable enough so that fuel could be dumped following proper regulations, further from the Halifax International Airport.

Of the 229 souls lost, 14 were members of the Swissair crew and 215 were passengers, 136 U.S. citizens, 28 Swiss, and more than 30 French. There is a dedication web page devoted to the memory of the victims at http://home.istar.ca/~robitza/swissair.htm written by a resident of Nova Scotia.

On a personal note, I was watching TV late that night. Not knowing that my colleague, an unmarried young man in his early 30's, was aboard, I felt the usual regret one feels upon learning of a accident of this scale. As the news broke, every major network and the cable news networks concentrated solely on this story, interviewing "experts", flying helicopters over water, focusing on the heartwrenching loss of life, the courageous search for survivors, and wild, uninformed speculation about the cause of the crash. Frustrated by the useless news coverage and the absense of any other interesting TV, I went to bed. The next morning I went to work without remembering the crash at all, until the secretary came to my office to tell me our co-worker had been aboard. That changed everything. I spent the rest of the day being tortured by the media as I watched TV and read all the web articles hoping for some new information. Despite learning very little, enough that could be summarized in 10 minutes at lunchtime and again at dinnertime, the cable news shows managed to milk the trajedy for an entire day's ratings. They gave the impression that new information could come to light at any time, so you'd better sit tight and stay tuned. Add a few shots of crying widows and mothers, and they could pull anyone back in front of the tube. I developed a new perspective on TV news that day, at the expense of being able to grieve for my colleague. Grieving would come later that week.


Sources:

  • www.swissair111.org
  • CBC News articles at http://cbc.ca/news/indepth/swissair
  • http://home.istar.ca/~robitza/swissair.htm

A full description of the accident appears at the Aviation Safety Network webpage: http://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19980902-0 . Thanks to avalyn for the link and a correction.

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