Mystery of lost diamonds endures, 20 years after the Swissair Flight 111 crash

The fate of many millions of dollars of valuables said to be carried aboard Swissair Flight 111 when it went down off Nova Scotia 20 years ago this Sunday remains unknown.

Plane is said to have been carrying jewels, cash, Picasso painting

When Swissair Flight 111 hit the water off Peggys Cove on Sept. 2, 1998, all 229 passengers and crew on board died instantly. (Reuters)

More than five kilograms of diamonds and jewels. A Picasso worth millions. Nearly 50 kilograms in cash.

The fate of many millions of dollars of valuables said to be carried aboard Swissair Flight 111 when it went down off Nova Scotia 20 years ago this Sunday remains unknown.

Insiders say the mystery may never be solved — an attempt to salvage the precious cargo was quickly abandoned, and any treasure hunters who seek to find it are doing it illegally.

"There was a lot of talk about it after the crash, that there had been all these valuables on board. That was a big deal," said Stephen Kimber, author of the book Flight 111: A Year in the Life of a Tragedy.

"Somewhere down at the bottom of the ocean, theoretically, are those diamonds."

Journalists inspect boxes of debris from Swissair Flight 111 at CFB Shearwater in Dartmouth, N.S., in December 1998. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

When the plane hit the water off Peggys Cove on Sept. 2, 1998, all 229 passengers and crew on board died instantly and the fuselage shattered into several million pieces.

A ship equipped with a giant vacuum was brought in to suck up debris from the sea floor. The Transportation Safety Board's investigation report said more than 18,000 kilograms of cargo were recovered, but does not go into further detail.

According to Kimber, the plane's manifest included a diamond from a Nature of Diamonds exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, one kilogram of other diamonds and about 4.5 kilograms of other jewelry, 49 kilograms of cash, and a multimillion-dollar version of Picasso's Le Peintre.

Insurer Lloyd's of London reportedly paid out an estimated $300 million for the diamonds and other jewels, and had applied for a treasure-trove licence from the Nova Scotia government to search the site following the federal investigation. But that plan outraged many of the victims' relatives, and the company eventually withdrew its application.

Lloyd's did not return a request for comment this week.

Exclusion zone

A two-kilometre-square exclusion zone around the site was maintained for just over a year following the crash, the RCMP said.

"RCMP, DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) and the Coast Guard conducted patrols of the area to maintain security of the scene. If someone tried to enter the area, they could have been charged with obstruction under the Criminal Code, or perhaps other offences under the various federal acts that might apply," said Nova Scotia RCMP spokeswoman Cpl. Jennifer Clarke in an email statement.

"Once the restrictions were lifted, the RCMP would not be aware of people going to the area to search for valuables, as it would not have been an offence or a police matter. This continues to be the case."

'Intrigue and deception'

John Wesley Chisholm, a Halifax-based TV documentary producer who has worked on shows including Clive Cussler's The Sea Hunters, raised the possibility that international treasure hunters could have been quietly searching the area in the years following the crash under treasure trove licences for nearby sites — including the wreck of HMS Fantome in Prospect, N.S.

"It's a business that's riddled with intrigue and deception," said Chisholm, adding that there are roughly 10,000 shipwrecks along Nova Scotia's rugged coastline.

John Wesley Chisholm is a Halifax-based TV documentary producer who has worked on shows including Clive Cussler's The Sea Hunters. (CBC)

"A very common treasure-hunting technique is to say, 'Oh yeah we're looking for this wreck over here,' like the Fantome … where they may in fact have been looking for the Swissair treasure."

Chisholm said Nova Scotia's laws at the time made it "the wild west of treasure hunting in the ocean," but the rules were out of sync with global standards.

Treasure hunting illegal

Today, treasure hunting is illegal in Nova Scotia.

Lynette MacLeod, a spokeswoman for department of Communities, Culture and Heritage, said paleontology and archeology sites on land and in water, under public or private ownership, are protected under the Special Places Protection Act.

"Those who damage or destroy important sites face stiff penalties under the Criminal Code of Canada, and stop-orders are enforced if sites are threatened by development. All enforcement is through RCMP and other law enforcement agencies," said MacLeod.

"The Government of Nova Scotia highly discourages any diving activity or treasure hunting in the area of the Swissair crash out of respect for the crash victims and families involved in the tragedy."

Chisholm said the current provincial restrictions were implemented roughly a decade ago, "And the whole world of treasure hunting went radio silent after that."

Transport Safety Board chief investigator Vic Gerden stands in front of the cockpit from Swissair Flight 111 at the reconstruction hangar at CFB Shearwater near Halifax, N.S., in May 1999.

But that doesn't mean it's not still happening.

Timothy Lightfoot, a commercial diver from the Halifax area, said it's known within the small diving community that there are "pirate" divers.

"There are people in this province, divers, rogues, that are out raiding treasure wrecks and plane crashes for their own benefit," said Lightfoot, who has been a commercial diver for 17 years.

Asked if he has heard of pirate divers scouring the Swissair site, Lightfoot said: "I'm not saying no one has ever gone there, I'm saying, they're not talking about it."

He said the tragedy not only took the lives of 229 men, women and children, it had an emotional toll on the people who worked on the investigation.

"If you tell me you were diving down on Swissair, I have a lower opinion of your moral ethics," said Lightfoot.

As part of the crash investigation, 98 per cent of Swissair's aircraft was recovered, and much of the cargo. The plane crashed Sept. 2, 1998. (CBC)

Nevertheless, Chisholm believes some treasure hunters see it differently.

"Treasure, it just makes people crazy.… Somehow, it just pulls on the psyche of men to do crazy things," he said.

"The notion that there could be $300 million of diamonds just there, out of sight, just away from where everyone is, is just an absolutely irresistible pull for a certain kind of person."

Kimber's book said Picasso's Le Peintre, valued at C$2.2 million, wasn't specially packaged for shipping — it was simply inside a wooden frame and stowed with the rest of the general cargo.

But other cargo was handled with greater care, the book said.

An unidentified man pauses at the Swissair Flight 111 memorial site near Peggys Cove, N.S. on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2001. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

It said the plane's valuables case — a one-metre-high aluminum container with reinforced walls, a locked door and a metal seal — contained the exhibition diamond, which was being shipped back to its owner in Europe, along with 49 kilograms of banknotes destined for a U.S. bank in Geneva and the jewelry.

"If Flight 111 had become well known as a shuttle bus for United Nations staff, it was equally popular, if publicly less well known, as a courier service for jewellers who used the flight to transport valuables back and forth between gem centres in the United States and Europe," an excerpt from the book reads.

Kimber noted it's not known if the valuables even survived the crash.

"What you essentially have is a plane going 500 kilometres an hour and hitting water, which is like concrete," he said.

"What happened was in one third of a second, the tail of the plane was in the nose of the plane.… So it's hard to know what happened to the things that were aboard the plane."