Darkness at Peggy's Cove

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BY THE TIME a transatlantic flight reaches Nova Scotia, most of the choices have already been made. Aisle or window; beef, chicken or fish; chardonnay or sauvignon. Paperbacks have been picked up or discarded; the film has started. For the people on board Swissair Flight 111 last Wednesday, that was when the choices stopped as their plane plunged into the sea.

The sight of forlorn personal effects floating in St Margaret's Bay reminded the world again of the peculiar horror of an aircraft crash, its scale, its violence and its abruptness. Machinery and lives that were in mid- course are suddenly shut off, leaving little but questions.

It seems that from the moment when Urs Zimmermann, the pilot of SWR111, first reported smoke in the cockpit until the fatal impact on the surface of the water, less than 15 minutes passed: from the speed of the descent, the passengers must have known the flight was in very serious trouble. The pilot remained calm, though he was wearing a smoke mask, until the last exchange with air traffic control. Then there is only silence for six minutes until the plane hit the sea. Something catastrophic - perhaps a power failure - had happened to SWR111, rendering it impossible to control.

Watching a modern passenger aircraft take off, it is always hard not to wonder at the physical forces that keep a huge piece of metal in the air. Seeing it broken on the ground or in the water, the questions about how such a highly wrought machine can suddenly stop are just as bewildering.

Yet none of those questions seem susceptible to quick answers. There had been problems with the wiring in MD-11s, but Swissair, true to its image of technical precision, said it had attended to any faults promptly. Though signals had been received from one of the black boxes, the devices that record a plane's last minutes, it had still not been located yesterday. Indeed, no piece of wreckage larger than a car roof had been recovered from the bay after a crash so catastrophic that the blast broke windows in houses five miles away.

Part of the tragedy of an aircraft crash is just this: the hideous confrontation of modern technology with the brute realities of mechanics and physics. The hold that such disasters exercise on the imagination is a function of their scale and the human tragedy; but also of the suddenness, the way in which lives brought together by chance are joined forever in death.

The dark irony of this flight was the presence of so many who had fought against death: the Aids pioneer, the cancer specialist, the man who led efforts to feed refugees in Africa. But there were so many others, their names less well known to all but the friends and families who arrived in Halifax yesterday. They mourned together or alone, on the rocks at Peggy's Cove, at the memorial service in Halifax, in Geneva's Cathedral.

Hollywood turns aerial dramas into emblems of solidarity and survival, as a random group of people comes together and survives despite adversity. The reality is the opposite. Families and friends are separated forever. The remains, bodies as well as suitcases, are scattered to the mercy of the winds and tides. The wreckage is so badly shattered it may not be possible to piece together the plane, and even identification of the victims is difficult.

The image of an aircraft brought to earth is always a frightening one. Think of the pictures of the Pan Am Boeing 747 strewn over the Scottish countryside at Lockerbie, or the eerie photographs of TWA 800, sections of the airframe bobbing in the bright water off Long Island.

To stand at Peggy's Cove on a summer's day and stare out across the Atlantic is magnificent. But to gaze at a grey horizon where the spectral shapes of ships search for bodies and wreckage under a lowering sky is mournful beyond words. It was here that some of the relatives came yesterday, to stand at the lighthouse and pick wild flowers. "I just felt like having a memento," said Peter Gerety, brother of one of the victims. "It was such a beautiful place, and that's the irony of it."

This wild coast has known many tragedies. Ships often came to grief here when this was a trade route. The cemeteries are already thick with the graves of sailors, and many of the bodies from the Titanic are buried here. The fishermen who went out to search for bodies on Wednesday night have been making these dark pilgrimages for centuries, yet normally there is something they can do to help. After this, all they could do was watch, haul in the bodies and return exhausted and silent to port.

In the West we are no longer accustomed to death like this. Global travel has become ritualised, emptied, sterile. When disaster happens, the images appear almost instantaneously on our television screens, painfully mocking the precision of technology and the conventional routines of air travel. The pilot maintained the professional disciplines of aerial dialogue until the end; the life rafts, so painstakingly pointed out by the flight attendants, remained unused. At Geneva airport the flight was simply marked "delayed", freezing it and the lives of its passengers forever on the destination boards.