Paul Service still remembers the smell of jet fuel wafting through the air after the fatal 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, Nova Scotia on September 2, 1998, after the MD-11 airliner plunged into the waters during of a flight from New York to Geneva, Switzerland.
All 229 pa*sengers and crew were k**led.
A delegation led by Veterans Affairs Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor and made up of Canadian veterans, RCMP officers and first responders gathered on 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 grim occasion that also offered a chance to reflect on a “collective experience” shared only by those who responded to the tragedy.
“We may have played different tunes, but we all got together 25 years ago,” he said.
Petitpas Taylor told those attending the ceremony that she wanted to thank the soldiers, police, firefighters and community members who rushed to help after the crash.
“On the night of September 2, many of you rushed through the darkness without the slightest, the slightest hesitation,” Petitpas Taylor said at the Peggy’s Cove Swissair Memorial in Indian Harbour, Nova Scotia.
Petitpas Taylor led a candlelit tribute to the victims of the disaster at another memorial site on Saturday evening.
Steven Harris, Assistant Deputy Minister of Veterans Affairs, said the event was about commemoration, remembrance and healing.
“The lives of those who sought to help, comfort and make sense of this tragedy have been changed forever,” he said.
Family members of some victims of the accident also took part in the ceremony and the participants laid roses at the foot of the monument dedicated to the deceased.
It was the first time Trevor Jain had met the victims’ relatives, more than two decades after working at the morgue to identify human remains.
Jain was a member of the military and was studying medicine at Dalhousie University in Halifax 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 seawater lingers with him to this day.
Jain said he and other members of his team initially chose not to meet with the victims’ families in an effort to protect themselves from the tragedy, but he was “grateful” to meet with them on Sunday.
“I wanted to empathize and offer my belated condolences, 25 years after the fact, but they were more concerned about our well-being,” Jain said of the loved ones he met.
Jain said he was glad he waited until the 25th anniversary to visit the memorial site for the first time.
“It’s thoughtful, it’s sacred and quiet and peaceful,” he said, looking out over St. Margaret’s Bay, “but it was the right time.”
Claire Mortimer said Nova Scotia became another home for her after her father, John Mortimer, died in the crash.
She has been to Peggy’s Cove dozens of times over the past 25 years, visiting the Bayswater Memorial Site where the unidentified remains of the crash victims are interred.
“It’s really the only grave I have,” she said, “and it’s a beautiful place. My dad and I both loved the ocean and beaches, so this is a perfect place for him to rest.
Mortimer said grief becomes easier to live with. His main concern now is with first responders struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder after experiencing the aftermath of the tragedy.
“The nature of post-traumatic stress disorder is that it gets worse over time,” she said. “Grieving is getting better. I am concerned for the Canadians who were involved and who are at risk of losing their lives.
Petitpas Taylor said Canadian Armed Forces personnel are trained to deal with tragedies, but nothing could prepare them for what they faced that day.
“In the short term, many of them suffered from post-traumatic stress. And they still suffer, some of them today,” she said, adding that the federal government has “emphasized” the importance of mental health.
Lt. Col. John O’Donnell was a Canadian Armed Forces chaplain sent to Nova Scotia 25 years ago to support service members taking part in the recovery effort dubbed Operation Persistence, but was soon redeployed to help comfort family members accident victims. He said he found reminders of resilience and hope during this time.
Relatives wanted to walk down the coast to Peggy’s Cove to offer flowers and keepsakes in memory of their loved ones, but were not allowed to, he said. Instead, they approached the shore – one family at a time – and a firefighter carried their memory into the water.
“I remember being struck by the care and tenderness with which the firefighter held the flowers given to him. He hugged them and he walked to the edge of the water, he stopped for a moment to pray, he threw the flowers in the waves, then he took off his helmet and put it on on his chest,” O’Donnell said.
“No one told him to do this, he just did it…the simplest gestures are often the most meaningful.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on September 3, 2023.