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Swissair Jet Crashes Off Nova Scotia

By Steven Pearlstein
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 3 1998; Page A01

A Swissair jumbo jet en route from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to Geneva with 228 people on board crashed off the southern coast of Nova Scotia late last night while trying to make an emergency landing, the Canadian coast guard said. [Note: Later press reports indicated that there were 229 people on board].

Canadian authorities immediately mounted a massive search of a 30-square-mile area along the coast and reported finding a large oil slick and wreckage of the aircraft floating about six miles off shore, near where the aircraft disappeared from radar screens.

There were no reports of survivors, and officials said that four bodies had been recovered amidst the wreckage. Initial reports indicated that some survivors had been spotted, but as the search continued into the early morning, these appeared to be unfounded. Nevertheless, as many as 50 ambulances were lined up along the shore to transport any potential survivors to local clinics and hospitals.

Canadian aviation officials said the three-engine McDonnell Douglas MD-11 had been diverted to a Halifax International Airport, which lies about 10 miles to the north of the Nova Scotian capital, after its flight crew reported smoke in the cockpit or passenger cabin about two hours after take-off.

Details of any conversations between the crew and ground controllers were not available early today, but local rescue officials said they had been told that the plane had begun dumping fuel over the Atlantic in preparation for an emergency or uncontrolled landing.

A spokeswoman for Swissair, Marian Van Zweren, told CNN early this morning that there were 213 passengers and 15 crew members on board but that the airline had no information on fatalities or survivors. She said the pilot first reported problems "very early" in the flight and he was directed to try to land at Boston's Logan Airport. She said she did not know why the plane flew on to Halifax, which is more than 400 miles farther to the northeast.

Within minutes of the crash, Canadian military helicopters were hovering over the search area, playing powerful searchlights along the coast and over the pitch-black waters of the Atlantic, while a flotilla of search vessels raced to the scene.

About a dozen fishing boats whose owners are familiar with that area of the Atlantic were also involved in the search, which was concentrated near the coastal village of Peggy's Cove -- about 20 miles southwest of Halifax and about 30 miles from the airport. Airport authorities said the aircraft was last visible on radar about eight miles south of Peggy's Cove.

Residents in the small town of Blandford, just across picturesque St. Margaret's Bay from Peggy's Cove, told police they saw a plane flying low over the bay at about 10:30 p.m. Atlantic Time, then heard a loud crash that shook their homes. "My wife and I were watching television, and we heard a loud bang, and we thought it was a thundercloud," Wilfred Morash told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. "The whole house shook like something bumped against it."

Another Blandford resident, Audrey Bachman, told the Associated Press: "We heard the plane go over our home, then my husband and son heard quite an explosion."

Swissair Flight 111 -- also designated as Delta Air Lines Flight 111 under a "code share" arrangement -- left New York at about 8:30 p.m. EDT bound for Geneva and declared an emergency about an hour later, Canadian aviation officials said. Under code sharing, one airline will sell a block of seats on another airline as if the flight were being flown by the selling airline. Delta and Swissair have a longstanding partnership arrangement.

Delta official Bill Berry confirmed that Delta code-share passengers were aboard the flight, estimating their number at about 50. He said one Delta flight attendant also was aboard the plane. Berry added that Delta had set up a contact number -- 800-801-0088 -- for anyone believing a family member or a friend might have been on the plane.

Preliminary reports in aviation disasters often prove to be incorrect. But if confirmed, smoke in the cockpit usually is associated with fire or hazardous material spills in the cargo hold or in passengers' luggage. Hazardous material has become an increasing concern for the aviation community because shippers often fail to recognize that certain materials can be hazardous, or they lie about the contents of packages.

Passengers sometimes carry highly flammable substances aboard aircraft, not knowing how dangerous they can be. One passenger was once discovered with a bag full of cigarette lighters. Investigators from the Natinal Transportation Safety Board in Washington were reported on their way to the crash scene before dawn this morning to assist Canadian authorities.

In Moscow, President Clinton was informed of the crash just before he departed the Russian capital for a visit to Ireland. "We're aware of the report," press secretary Mike McCurry told reporters. "The White House is seeking additional information."

The Swissair Douglas MD-11 -- a modern derivative of the three-engine DC-10 -- is the world's only modern wide-cabin airliner powered by three engines. The first one entered service in 1990, as did one that crashed today, according to airline officials. The 200-foot-long aircraft can carry 285 people in standard configuration, or up to 410 when all the seating is in economy class. The Swissair plane had a standard seating arrangement, according to the published flight schedule.

Boeing took over production of the MD-11 -- which is built in Long Beach, Calif. -- when it purchased St. Louis-based McDonnell Douglas in 1997. Earlier this year, Boeing announced that it plans to cease construction of the airliner in 2000.

Soon after its introduction, it proved unpopular with many air carriers, particularly American Airlines, which is now shedding its fleet of the jumbos and selling them to Federal Express. Conversely, freight haulers like the plane, which has a range of more than 7,500 miles, and many passenger versions have been converted to cargo carriers.

A Federal Express cargo MD-11 crashed while landing at Newark International Airport in New Jersey on July 31, 1997, the five people aboard escaped before the plane was destroyed by fire.

Reuters news agency reported from Geneva:

Weeping relatives of passengers and crew on a Swissair jet that crashed in the night off Nova Scotia began to arrive at Geneva's Cointrin airport this morning after news of the disaster was broadcast on local radio.

Airport manager Daniel Teysseire said a special reception center had been set up where relatives would be offered psychological counseling. "This is important in these circumstances," he said.

No passenger list was immediately issued, but the Geneva-New York route is regularly used by officials of the United Nations and U.N. and other international agencies based in Geneva -- the world body's European headquarters. Bankers from Geneva's extensive private banking sector are also frequent passengers.

Initially electronic boards at Cointrin said Flight 111 had been delayed, but later this was removed. Airport officials established a hotline number for relatives of passengers and crew to call.

Staff writer Don Phillips in Washington contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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