Fishermen who raced to Swissair crash can't forget 'a black old night,' 20 years on

For fisherman Bob Conrad, there are daily reminders of friendships forged in the aftermath of the air disaster and the unexpected joy that can grow out of such deep sorrow.

Fishermen tried to help the night Swissair Flight 111 fell out of the sky, killing all 229 on board

More than 200 people perish after Swissair flight 111 crashes into the water near Peggy's Cove. 7:39

Photographs of a cherubic toddler and bright-eyed young woman sit atop Bob Conrad's well-worn piano, their smiling faces looking out to the site where the veteran fisherman raced 20 years ago as tragedy unfolded in the distance outside his front window.

The pictures are mixed in with photos of Conrad's two daughters and mementos he has received over the years from families touched by his efforts to recover anything he could the night Swissair Flight 111 plunged into St. Margaret's Bay, killing all 229 people on board.

For Conrad, they are daily reminders of friendships forged in the aftermath of the air disaster and the unexpected joy that can grow out of such sorrow.

"You know, something like that event was just so significant at the time and still is and it's a wonderful thing that we were able to maintain connections and grow those relationships," he said in his living room overlooking the bay's glistening waters in Fox Point, N.S.

"We have made wonderful friendships, so out of a tragedy there's the little bit of a bright side that happens. And, they are treasures to us."

Fisherman Robert Conrad took his boat out into the array of plane wreckage the night of Sept. 2, 1998. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Those connections began soon after the MD-11 jet fell from a moonless sky on Sept. 2, 1998, shattering into millions of pieces when it hit the ocean floor about 10 kilometres off Peggy's Cove on the south shore of Nova Scotia.

Conrad, now 71, was dozing on his couch in front of the TV after a long day of tuna fishing when he heard a thunderous boom race across the water toward shore. Soon after, he began hearing reports of a possible plane crash not far from his hilltop home.

He quickly told his wife, Peggy, that he was going to head out on his boat to see if he could help in what many thought at the time would be a rescue effort.

Casting off from the wharf nearby, Conrad motored toward the glow of orange flares illuminating the crash site on a rain-soaked, miserable night. Alone in his boat, he heard the radio chatter of colleagues who had already drifted into a gruesome array of plane wreckage, clothing and all manner of human remains.

He soon found himself in the middle of a debris field full of pieces so pulverized he knew no one could have survived.

Visitors look out to the ocean from the Swissair Flight 111 memorial at Whalesback near Peggy's Cove, N.S. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

One of the first items Conrad tried to bring aboard was a waterlogged suitcase that was too heavy to pull up on his boat. He let it go, but used his gaffe to haul in a jacket that was sticking out of the case.

He turned it over to the police and thought little of it until he met Nancy White when she ventured out to his house with Janet and David Wilkins, who had lost their 19-year-old son, Monte, in the crash.

Conrad soon learned that White's teenage daughter had packed her suede jacket before boarding Flight 111 to go to Switzerland to study pastry making.

"She recognized it as her daughter's and of course those kinds of connections are extremely important to people who are dealing with that kind of loss," Conrad said of the young woman, Rowenna Lee, the spirited teen whose photo is a fixture on Conrad's piano.

"One thing that we came to learn very much and very quickly was that these family members wanted to know every detail of whatever it is that they can possibly know about the event in all of its detail. So, we were able to meet them and have a wonderful time with them at the time and we made friendships that have borne the test."

Journalists record the partially reconstructed cockpit of Swissair Flight 111 at a news conference in Halifax on Monday, Dec. 4, 2000. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Those relations also extended to the family of Robert Martin Maillet, the brown-eyed toddler who was 14 months old when he perished with his parents Karen Domingue Maillet and Denis Maillet, both 37, of Baton Rouge, La.

Conrad spotted the baby's body as he moved through the debris, his light trained on what he at first thought was a child's doll.

"I brought him aboard and later found out he had the same name I had — he was a Robert and I was a Robert. So I just cared for the body and wrapped it in a blanket," said the soft-spoken fisherman, glancing at the photo of little Robert, whose grandparents later made an emotional visit to the Conrads and still keep in touch.

"What meant a lot to them was simply to hold the hands that had last held their grandson."

The emotions also reverberated in the communities that dot the rugged coastline.

Picturesque Peggy's Cove became ground zero for police, the Transportation Safety Board and military officials in the days after the crash. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

At the time, dozens of fishermen took to their boats in a futile bid to find survivors, while residents spent days combing the picturesque shoreline for any sign of debris.

Scott Hubley had just gotten in from fishing when news reports began coming in that a plane had gone down somewhere off Peggy's Cove, close to where he plied the waters for mackerel, halibut and lobster. He pulled on his boots so quickly he didn't put on socks and headed to his father's house so they could begin searching for survivors.

"It was a black old night," he said. "We started picking up luggage, clothes, food trays — whatever's on a plane — and then it got more graphic. Stuff you've never seen before, but you knew what it was."

Hubley, 49, doesn't think often of the crash but says memories of that night remain vivid and return "every now and then," particularly for his elderly father.

All 229 people died instantly

Reminders of the accident are inescapable for many in the area — where the sky above serves as an aviation superhighway that hugs the coast of Nova Scotia before veering across the Atlantic to Europe.

Flight 111 was on that track when it set off from New York for Geneva at 8:18 p.m. with pilot Urs Zimmerman and co-pilot Stephan Loew at the controls. It began tracking north, but about 52 minutes into the flight Loew caught a whiff of what he thought was smoke in the cockpit.

Vic Gerden, lead investigator into the crash of Swissair Flight 111 stands in front of the plane's cockpit at the reconstruction hangar at CFB Shearwater on May 27, 1999. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The pair began a descent as an electrical fire in the ceiling over the cockpit spread and the pilots struggled to get the aircraft on the ground. Just 31 kilometres from Halifax International Airport, Zimmerman turned the aircraft back over the ocean to dump fuel before attempting a final approach.

Doomed by a catastrophic system failure, the plane struck the water nose first at 10:31 p.m. local time at 560 kilometres an hour, killing the 14 crew and 215 passengers instantly.

Investigators concluded in 2003 that the fire started when an arcing wire — a phenomenon in which a wire's coating is corroded and can lead to sparking — ignited a flammable insulation covering in the ceiling.

For many, recollections of that night and the exhaustive investigation that followed will likely return as people gather for the 20th anniversary of the crash this Sunday.

Service at Bayswater  Sunday

A service will be held at a memorial site just up the road from Conrad's house in Bayswater, where many of the 15,000 body parts recovered after the crash were buried. Set against a stunning ocean vista, the granite memorial is engraved with the names of the dead and the epitaph: "They have been joined to the sky and the sea."

Another memorial in Whalesback stares out to the crash site and the iconic lighthouse in the tourist mecca of Peggy's Cove, which became ground zero for police, the Transportation Safety Board and military officials in the days after the crash.

The plane wreckage was filmed by divers off Peggys Cove, N.S., 18 days after the crash. (Reuters)

John Campbell, who lives in Peggy's Cove and runs the Sou'Wester restaurant, saw his community taken over by officials, grieving family members and the media immediately after the crash. His restaurant was closed for more than five days when it became a sort of command centre for officials orchestrating the massive recovery and investigation.

The government wharf outside his window became a makeshift morgue for crews bringing in remains and flotsam.

Relatives continue to visit site

Campbell too saw first-hand the devastating impact of the crash after spending hours at sea collecting debris, something he still is not comfortable discussing. But for Campbell, the immediate impact of the crash didn't end when the TV crews and investigators left.

Grieving family members near the site of the crash. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

For years, he ferried relatives out to the crash site to spread the ashes of their loved ones. It was an act that eventually took a toll on the affable businessman, who ended up selling his boat and ending the trips after a memorable encounter involving a woman who lost her fiancé on Flight 111.

"She made a comment along the lines of, 'I'm not sure it's worth going on,' and I'll never forget it because I was scared that she had a different plan than just going out to the site," he said, standing in the shadow of the cove's picture-perfect white and red lighthouse.

"I thought, 'I'm not equipped for dealing with this'... So after the five years and taking the families out, I decided to get out of the boat business."

Reminder life is 'precious and meaningful'

Still, others like Conrad embrace the "bright" legacy of the Swissair disaster and the enduring relationships it spawned.

The Wilkins family were due to arrive at his home from California this week for one of their semi-regular visits and to mark the anniversary.

Conrad beamed as he described their coming reunion and the bond forged from a tragedy he says has taught him valuable lessons.

"It has sharpened my understanding of what it is really important," he says.

"It makes the life that you live, especially as you get older, just that much more precious and meaningful. That was 20 years ago, but it just gets better and better and better. Those relationships don't die off, they just secure themselves."

Read more articles at CBC Nova Scotia