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A Canadian Air Transat plane sits on the tarmac at the Terceira island airport in the Azores after an emergency landing on Friday, Aug. 24, 2001. ((Humberta Augusto, Associated Press))

Passengers who were aboard an Air Transat flight that nearly plunged into the Atlantic in 2001 while flying from Toronto to Lisbon are invited to participate in a study on how they dealt with the trauma.

Researchers at Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute in Toronto are leading the study in partnership with the University of Toronto and McMaster University in Hamilton. They say it will be the first study of its kind to look at a large group of people who all experienced the same traumatic event under the same conditions.

On Aug. 24, 2001, Air Transat pilots made a risky glide into the Azores after the engines flamed out. An engine fuel leak forced the pilots to make an emergency landing.

Some of the 293 passengers on Air Transat Flight 236 suffered fractures and shock, but there were no deaths.

One of the researchers was a passenger on the flight.

"This wasn't just a close call where your life flashes before your eyes in a split second and then everything is OK," study investigator McMaster psychiatry Prof. Margaret McKinnon said in a release.

The feeling of impending death lasted an excruciating 30 minutes as the crew prepared passengers to ditch in the ocean, said McKinnon, who is also a research scientist at the Mood Disorders Program at St. Joseph's Healthcare in Hamilton. She studies patients who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and other psychiatric conditions.

Study participants will be able to contribute to research that aims to better understand the brain circuitry involved in reliving traumatic events, including the role of emotions and memory, and why some people are more vulnerable to post-traumatic stress.

The researchers hope to recruit at least 40 to 50 passengers, who will:

  • Be interviewed about their experience on the flight.
  • Reflect on news images broadcast at that time.
  • Be offered MRI scans to identify distinct brain patterns as they recall the experience.

Air Transat Flight 236 passengers who are interested in participating in the study can contact Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute at 416-785-2500, ext. 3084, for further information.

The research is being funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. It will take place at the neuroscience labs at Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute and University of Toronto.