Last flight of the 'UN shuttle'

Swissair crash: Authorities play down terrorism theory in disaster that killed at least 10 United Nations officials
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The Independent Online
ST MARGARET'S BAY is an isolated inlet on the Atlantic Coast of Nova Scotia, a place of small fishing villages and holiday homes. They are used to the sound of aircraft on the great air lane that extends from New York to Europe, the world's busiest aerial freeway. But the noise that they heard on Wednesday night was different. "The motors were still going, but it was the worst-sounding deep groan that I've heard," said Claudia Zinck-Gilroy

It had been dark for two hours when an explosion shook the small clapboard houses around the bay, the shock wave bouncing off the low rocky hills. "It was like something hit the roof," said one local resident.

Nearly two hours earlier, Swissair Flight 111 had left New York bound for Geneva. Its passengers came from all over the world, because this flight linked not just Switzerland and America, but the two main centres of United Nations activity: New York and Geneva. The flight was known as the "UN Shuttle" and up to 10 of the dead were UN officials. The majority - 136 - were Americans, but there were 30 from France, 28 Swiss, six Britons, three Germans, three Italians, two Greeks and one each from Saudi Arabia, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iran, Spain, St Kitts and Russia.

Something had gone badly wrong. The flight crew had reported smoke in the cockpit within an hour after departure, and requested permission to land in Boston. The pilot declared a distress situation one level less than a full-scale emergency. Air traffic control at Monckton in Canada told the pilot to carry on to Halifax, which was closer. He had flown out over the sea to jettison fuel, but had reported increasing problems. Then he was losing height - down from about 33,000 feet, cruising altitude, to about 10,000 feet in eight minutes, a terrific rate of descent. At 10.30pm local time, SR111 was off the radar. The pilots last words were "pan, pan, pan" - a shortened form of the French and German words for breakdown.

Silence fell once more on the bay. The first victims were found by the crews of fishing boats who put out despite the fact that Hurricane Danielle is sweeping up the coast. "Fishermen were coming on the VHF radio asking for body bags and pleading at some points for the Navy to take bodies off their boats," said a Canadian reporter who joined the flotilla. The water was scattered withdebris and body parts.

By daybreak, there was a small flotilla sitting five miles off Peggy's Cove, a picturesque spot with a cluster of small houses, a lighthouse and a restaurant that was now a centre for co-ordinating the rescue. On the horizon, the HMCS Preserver, a Canadian supply ship, and HMCS Ville de Quebec, were patrolling the area, along with other vessels including the Cape Islander fishing boats. In the skies, C-130 Hercules and Sea King helicopters circled. Canadian Coast Guard vessels joined the search, bringing the total number involved to 1500.

When early afternoon came, the authorities were still holding the precarious hope that perhaps someone might still be found alive. "We still have a hope, however slim, that there may be survivors alive," said Lieutenant Commander Glen Chamberlain of the RCN. But it was, as he admitted, a slim hope. "Would it be a miracle," he asked? "Absolutely."

The reality was grimmer than a miracle. Rescuers reported finding only pieces of bodies, scooped up and put into body bags. The Mounties said that there were 44 body bags. But, warned Cdr Chamberlain, "The situation is grisly, it is confusing and it is not possible to be accurate talking about the number of people found." Rescuers returned traumatised and upset by what they had seen, and counselling was arranged for them. "Our people are professionals, but you can never be fully prepared for something like this."

It seemed impossible that anyone could have survived the impact. The plane had, it appeared, descended at high speed, hit the water and broken up, then plummeted to the ocean floor 150 feet below the surface, the rescuers said. But the wreckage had scattered on contact, and then spread further with the currents and tides, and the Royal Canadian Navy was exploring some 120 square kilometres of water.

The search was led by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who will maintain the lead until it is clear that this is not a criminal investigation. The search for the black box flight recorders had yet to begin, and everyone was discouraging speculation about the causes. Instead, the focus was on the events that had brought SR111 to St Margaret's Bay, instead of Logan Airport in Boston; and, of course, on those who died and those they left behind.

The bodies were being taken first to the Preserver, a ship with large storage capacity and large refrigerators. From there, they were to be taken to the Royal Canadian Air Force Base at Sherwater, near Halifax, where a hangar was turned into a morgue. In the port city itself, flags were at half mast in the naval dockyard. It is no stranger to the tragedies of the sea: it was to this city, more than 80 years ago, that the victims of the Titanic came.

Nothing is quite like an air crash for bringing home the precarious nature of life. Death came so suddenly and unexpectedly for 229 people who had thought themselves safe on the way to Geneva, but found themselves in the cold Atlantic.

A local official summed up the sombre mood: "It is the dark of the night in Halifax," he said, "there is darkness in our hearts and we are all sad."