Paul Service can still remember the smell of jet fuel wafting through the air after the deadly crash of Swissair Flight 111.
Service was one of hundreds of first responders who took part in the recovery mission in St. Margaret’s Bay, N.S., on Sept. 2, 1998, after the MD-11 passenger jet plunged into the waters during a flight from New York to Geneva, Switzerland.
All 229 passengers and crew were killed.
A delegation led by Veterans Affairs Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor and including Canadian military veterans, RCMP officers and first responders, gathered Sunday to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Canada’s response to the tragedy.
Service, now Chief Director of Halifax Search and Rescue, described Sunday as a somber occasion that also offered a chance to reflect on a “collective experience” shared only by those who responded to the tragedy.
“We may have had all different pieces that we played, but we all came together 25 years ago,” he said.
Petitpas Taylor told ceremony attendees she wanted to thank soldiers, police, firefighters and community members who rushed to help after the crash.
“On the night of Sept. 2, so many of you rushed into the darkness without even the slightest, slightest hesitation,” Petitpas Taylor said at the Peggy’s Cove Swissair Memorial in Indian Harbour, N.S.
Petitpas Taylor led a candlelight tribute to victims of the disaster at another memorial site on Saturday night.
Steven Harris, assistant deputy minister of Veteran’s Affairs, said the event was about commemoration, remembrance and healing.
“The lives of those who sought to help, to comfort, to make sense of this tragedy were changed forever,” he said.
Family members of some of the crash victims also took part in the ceremony, and participants laid roses at the foot of the monument for the deceased.
It was the first time Trevor Jain met the victims’ relatives, more than two decades after he worked in the morgue identifying human remains.
Jain was a member of the military and in the middle of medical school at Halifax’s Dalhousie University when he received a call in the middle of the night about the downed plane.
The “look of shock and horror on everyone’s face,” the initial chaos of the morgue, and the smell of jet fuel mixed with sea water lingers with him to this day.
Jain said he and other members of his team initially opted not to meet the families of the victims in an effort to insulate themselves from the tragedy, but he was “thankful” to meet them on Sunday.
“I wanted to be empathetic and say my delayed condolences, 25 years after the fact, but they were more concerned about our well-being,” Jain said of the relatives he met.
Jain said he was glad he waited until the 25th anniversary to attend the memorial site for the first time.
“It’s reflective, it’s holy, quiet and peaceful,” he said, looking out onto St. Margaret’s Bay, “but it was the right time.”
Claire Mortimer said Nova Scotia has become another home for her after her father, John Mortimer, died in the crash.
She’s made the trip to Peggy’s Cove dozens of times over the past 25 years, visiting the memorial site in Bayswater where the unidentified remains of the crash victims are buried.
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“It’s really the only grave I have,” she said, “and it’s a beautiful place. My father and I both loved the ocean, beaches, so it’s a perfect place for him to be laid to rest.”
Mortimer said the grief gets easier to live with. Her main concern, now, is for the first responders who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder after living through the tragedy’s aftermath.
“The nature of post traumatic stress disorder is that it gets worse with time,” she said. “Grief gets better. My concern is for Canadians who were involved, and are at risk for losing their lives.”
Petitpas Taylor said Canadian Armed Forces personnel are trained to face tragedies, but nothing could prepare them for what they faced on that day.
“Short term, many of them suffered from post-traumatic stress. And they still suffer, some of them today,” she said, adding the federal government has “emphasized” the importance of mental health.
Lt.-Col. John O’Donnell was a Canadian Armed Forces chaplain dispatched to Nova Scotia 25 years ago to support military members participating in the recovery effort dubbed Operation Persistence, but he was soon redeployed to help comfort family members of crash victims. He said he found reminders of resilience and hope during that period.
Relatives wanted to go down the shore of Peggy’s Cove to offer flowers and mementos in memory of their loved ones but were not allowed to, he said. Instead, they would approach the shore — one family at a time — and a firefighter would take their memento to the water.
“I remember being struck by how carefully and tenderly the firefighter held the flowers that had been passed to him. He cradled them in his arms and he walked down to the water’s edge, he paused in prayer for a moment, he tossed the flowers into the waves and then he removed his helmet and he put it on his chest,” O’Donnell said.
“Nobody told him to do that, he just did it … the simplest gestures are often the most meaningful.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 3, 2023.