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Swissair Report

  Flight 111's Sad Harvest

A rescue and recovery worker picks up a piece of Swissair Flight 111's fuselage. (Reuters)

By Steven Pearlstein and Don Philips
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 4, 1998; Page A01

PEGGY'S COVE, Nova Scotia, Sept. 3 – All 229 passengers and crew aboard Swissair Flight 111 died when the plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the Nova Scotia coast Wednesday night, authorities said today, as the search for survivors turned into a sad harvest of human remains. Some of the bodies were wearing life jackets, donned in preparation for an emergency landing that never took place.

The scale of the disaster – the deadliest in the Swiss carrier's 67-year history – became clearer as the day went on and a sketchy account of the airliner's frantic last minutes began to emerge. But Canadian, U.S. and Swiss authorities apparently made little progress in learning why the McDonnell Douglas MD-11 jumbo jet, servicing a popular route from New York to Geneva, went down in shallow seas just short of the Halifax airport.

"There are no reported signs of survivors," Benoit Bouchard, head of the Canadian Transportation Safety Board, told reporters at a briefing this afternoon.

Rescue workers who visited the crash scene, about five miles from a coastal village called Peggy's Cove, said the only visible evidence of Flight 111's fate consisted of a large fuel slick, widely scattered small pieces of the aircraft and remains of the passengers and crew. Authorities had not recovered the "black box" flight and data recorders that might provide key evidence of what went wrong and why.

As the crash victims' relatives began arriving at a nearby air force base and politicians around the world offered condolences, the remains of at least 60 people were lifted from a calm blue sea littered with wreckage, body parts and personal effects.

There were no initial indications of foul play, and Swissair officials reported no bomb threats. Some local residents who heard the plane go down said the aircraft's engines sputtered before the crash; the pilots had told air traffic controllers that the cockpit was filling with smoke.

Swissair officials reported that 137 Americans were among the victims; they said they would not release the full passenger list until all next-of-kin had been contacted.

It was known, however, that among the American dead were Jonathan Mann, a pioneer in the global fight against AIDS, and his wife Mary Lou Clements-Mann, a vaccine expert. The two physicians were headed to Geneva for meetings at the World Health Organization. "We are mourning Mary Lou and Jonathan," Gro Harlem Bruntland, the former Norwegian prime minister who now heads the WHO, told staff members.

Also on the flight, a popular "shuttle" between United Nations headquarters in New York and Geneva, were at least six other officials of U.N. or affiliated agencies.

Among the passengers were 136 Americans, 30 French citizens, 28 Swiss, six Britons, three Germans, three Italians, two Greeks and one each from Saudi Arabia, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iran, Spain, St. Kitts and Russia, according to Swissair. Of the 14 crew members, one was an American and the rest were Swiss, an airline spokesman said.

Philippe Bruggisser, chief executive officer of Swissair's parent company, SAir Group, said the three-engine MD-11, which entered service in 1991, was in "impeccable technical condition when it left Geneva" on the outbound leg to New York. A Swissair spokesman in Geneva, Jean-Claude Donzel, said that the plane was given a complete overhaul in August 1997 – "stripped down to the bones and put back together."

Aviation sources said the plane had been flown a total of 35,998 hours and had undergone 6,554 "cycles," each consisting of a takeoff and landing. Swissair is generally considered to have a good safety record; its last fatal crash occurred in 1979, when a DC-8 plowed into a fence while landing at the Athens airport, killing 14 people.

Grieving family members gathered at the international airport in Geneva and wept as authorities there told them there were apparently no survivors. Some relatives also assembled at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, where the flight originated. Investigators from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board rushed to Peggy's Cove to assist their Canadian counterparts in their investigation of the crash.

President Clinton, traveling in Northern Ireland, said he and the nation were "deeply grieved" by news of the crash. New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani spent much of Wednesday night and Thursday morning with the victim's families at Kennedy Airport.

Investigators quickly began poring over Flight 111's cargo manifest, to see if the airliner was carrying any materials that might have caused a fire that produced the smoke in the cockpit. Aviation sources said, however, that the aircraft's cargo holds were "class C," meaning they offered the greatest possible degree of protection against fire. Each hold was equipped with systems to detect fire and to suppress it, the sources said.

The only other MD-11 destroyed in a mishap was a Federal Express aircraft on which a fire erupted in the cargo hold; the pilot managed to land the plane at Newburgh, N.Y., and no one was killed, but the plane was consumed by flames.

While there was no indication of what might have caused Wednesday's crash, some details of the jetliner's abortive flight and its occupants' final minutes have begun to emerge.

Flight 111 left Kennedy Airport at 8:17 p.m. Wednesday night, officials said, with 215 passengers and 14 crew members on board. The plane had reached 33,000 feet – its approximate cruising altitude – before pilots reported to air traffic controllers that they were having problems, according to Swissair officials. They gave an international distress signal – "Pan! Pan! Pan!" – that indicates trouble but falls short of a dire emergency.

Flying the aircraft were pilot Urs Zimmermann, 50, and copilot Stefan Low, 36, Swissair official Bruggisser said. Both were described as veteran pilots who had flown that same jet in the past several days and reported no irregularities.

Investigators confirmed that the pilot of the jumbo jet radioed Canadian air traffic controllers at about 10:22 p.m. (9:22 p.m. EDT) that there was smoke in the cockpit, then declared a flight emergency and changed course for Boston to try to land there. Several minutes later, the pilot changed course again – toward Halifax – when flight controllers informed him it was closer.

According to Canadian investigators, there were indications that the crash occurred 38 miles – or about 8 minutes of flying time – from the Halifax airport, as the pilot was circling over the ocean jettisoning fuel from the plane to lighten the aircraft for a safer landing.

"Ten minutes more and the aircraft would have landed," said Swissair official Bruggisser.

Passengers evidently had been told to prepare for an emergency landing and to brace themselves: Many of the bodies recovered today were wearing life vests, which would be standard procedure for passengers on a crippled aircraft flying over water.

Standard crew procedure also would include securing any items that might be thrown about the cabin during a rough descent and landing, such as food service carts and hand luggage, and making sure all passengers were seated with their safety belts fastened.

Aviation sources said the plane's radar signature disappeared at an altitude of 8,000 feet, suggesting that it may have begun to break up or had lost all electrical power. The sources said that radar picked up some traces of the aircraft as it continued to descend but that it was not clear whether the plane was intact at the time.

All day today, bright red Canadian Coast Guard helicopters ferried officials and equipment from this picturesque fishing village on Nova Scotia's south coast to the crash site, where a Navy frigate and supply ship, five coast guard vessels and a small armada of fishing vessels had been combing the waters since midnight in the vain search for survivors.

At Shearwater Air Force Base, just outside Halifax, officials were making arrangements for a temporary morgue, where bodies of victims will be brought for identification by family members, who have been asked to bring medical recoreds to help with the process. Arrangements were being made for the families to stay at the base and receive counseling from clergymen and psychologists.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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