Howard Green directed, wrote and co-produced The Investigation of Swissair 111.
It’s a highway up there. On many clear evenings on Nova Scotia’s Atlantic coast, look skyward. You’ll be mesmerized by a steady stream of jetliners cruising from the big Eastern Seaboard cities of the United States, en route to Europe. Around sunset, the contrails make for a magnificent light show – pink, peach and white streaks.
Even though Sept. 2, 1998, was anything but a clear evening, Swissair Flight 111 was one of those planes. Twenty-five years ago, it crashed into the ocean just after 10:30 p.m. ADT, approximately five nautical miles southwest of the postcard village of Peggys Cove. All 229 people aboard died.
This summer, from a renovated fish shack, I’m looking out at the ocean near where the plane went down. The crash has profound meaning for me. I didn’t know anyone on board the aircraft, but I’m a Nova Scotian by birth, I know these waters, and for four years, I was immersed in making a documentary about the investigation. Thinking back on it all gives me shudders.
Fifty-three minutes after taking off from JFK airport in New York, the crew noticed an abnormal odour and a small amount of smoke appeared in the cockpit. It was initially assessed as an air conditioning anomaly. It wasn’t. Wires connected to the in-flight entertainment system (IFEN) had chafed, met each other and arced. Arcs are very high-temperature sparks, like mini lightning strikes. This occurred in hidden areas, in the “attic” or “walls” of the plane. According to investigators, the crew was likely unaware there was a fire until it was too late.
Initially, the pilots wanted to divert to Boston because there was a Swissair maintenance facility at Logan International Airport. But they were advised Halifax was closer, so they headed there. The aircraft was at 33,000 feet and dinner was being served. It began descending at a faster-than-normal rate. As the plane, a McDonnell Douglas MD-11, got closer to Halifax, the pilots requested permission to dump fuel, standard procedure. Before an ocean crossing, an aircraft is heavy with fuel for the long flight. It should be lighter for landing to avoid coming down too hard, damaging the aircraft and risking lives. As Swissair 111 began to turn back toward the ocean and over St. Margaret’s Bay, suddenly things worsened in the cockpit. The autopilot disconnected and the screens, which housed the instrumentation, went dark. The pilots declared an emergency and indicated they needed to land immediately. This was approximately six minutes before impact.
A raging fire in impossible-to-see areas had spread. Initially, it was travelling aft into the ceiling of first class and business class. But the crew, following procedure for “smoke of unknown origin,” began shutting off non-essential systems to isolate the source of the smoke, a process of elimination. The investigation, a 4½-year task, concluded that when the non-essential systems were shut off, recirculation ceiling fans in the aircraft’s “attic” stopped, resulting in a reversal in the airflow and the direction of the fire, which was spreading in the cavity above the ceiling. The fire and smoke were sucked forward into the cockpit ceiling. Eventually, the flight-deck ceiling began to melt. Molten material dripped onto the carpet.
The clock was running out. First Officer Stephan Löw was flying the jet. Outside, it was dark and raining. Basic standby instruments would have been available to him, but there was likely a great deal of smoke in the cockpit affecting visibility. His seat belt was found ripped in two, as though it was cut with shears. The force required to tear the belt so cleanly indicated he was in his seat and strapped in at impact. Captain Urs Zimmermann’s seat was in the egress position, meaning pushed back, indicating he was probably out of his seat, perhaps because of the ceiling melting – or to fight the fire. Both are speculation. It’s believed, however, someone was still alive in the cockpit a minute before impact because one of the engines was shut down. Transportation Safety Board of Canada investigators believed the crew might have received a warning indication (perhaps false) of an engine fire, leading to that power plant being shut down by one of the crew.
The aircraft hit nose down, sharply banked, verging on upside down. It hit the water at high speed, estimated to be 555 kilometres an hour. Investigators described the fuselage as a tube that rapidly filled with water and blew apart. Or imagine, one said, a Coke bottle dropping onto concrete from the roof of a 10-storey building. The result is catastrophic. The aircraft shattered in a third of a second or less. The crash occurred in 55-60 metres of water, approximately the length of the plane.
By later that autumn, divers and recovery teams had retrieved 90 per cent of the roughly two million pieces of aircraft. A year later, they would go back and get an additional 8 per cent with the help of a highly specialized ship that vacuumed the sea bottom. I watched as they brought up tons of mud containing wreckage, including key wires and components from the jet’s front section where the fire occurred. Because the plane was underwater in so many pieces and the flight recorders had stopped prior to the crash, this was one of the most complex investigations in aviation history. If there were ever anything approaching good luck associated with such a horrific accident, it’s that upon impact, the seawater instantly froze the fire evidence. There was something for investigators to analyze.
I spent countless hours amidst the pieces of broken airplane in a hangar at Shearwater on the Dartmouth side of Halifax Harbour, trying to understand what the investigators were doing and what had occurred.
Upon first seeing a splintered passenger aircraft, you find yourself speechless, particularly when you see things that speak to the presence of human beings, such as a seat belt or an instruction card about emergency procedures.
In late 1999, as the team sifted through every piece along a conveyor belt, a plastic bag hung off the side. In black Magic Marker, the letters “HR” were written on the bag. HR did not stand for human resources, but for human remains. As the team tried to find bits of wire or circuit boards that might help them solve the puzzle, someone’s rib would appear in between shards of mangled metal.
The investigative team suffered emotionally in many ways. The strain of being away from their families in other parts of the country – for years – was incessant.
In one case, midway through the process, a key investigator’s teenage son was diagnosed with a brain tumour. But this dedicated Canadian public servant remained in the hangar, doing his job for what would be an undetermined amount of time.
Vic Gerden, the investigator in charge, spent more than four years away from his wife and home in Winnipeg. If I wanted to phone him, I knew he’d be at his desk, even late at night, such was his sense of duty.
Determining what it was like in the cockpit during the final minutes was part of the investigation. On a freezing January night, I flew in a Cessna Citation government jet from Ottawa to the southeast coast of Nova Scotia. The objective was to fly the Swissair route to see it from the pilots’ point of view. It was dark as we turned out to sea over St. Margaret’s Bay. Lights along the shoreline were sparse. The sky above us and sea below us were inky black. There were virtually no visual cues. With smoke in the cockpit and lacking instrument displays, it would be easy to become spatially disoriented, losing a sense of up versus down. And on the night of the crash the weather wasn’t clear.
Over the radio, the air traffic controller guiding us asked, “Are you flying the Swissair track?” The distinctive image of the flight path of Swissair 111 had been widely seen, easily recognizable to a controller in the area. One of the pilots of the Citation, investigator Mark Clitsome, answered yes and explained our flight’s mission. We soon turned left and made a straight-in approach to Halifax airport. It was eerie how quickly we were on the ground. But the probe determined that even under ideal circumstances, like a strong tailwind, time would have run out for Swissair 111.
It’s hard to fathom how devastating the crash was. There were very few pieces of the aircraft still intact. The landing gear, designed to support the weight of the plane, looked okay, as did the bulkhead separating the flight deck from the cabin and cockpit door. While dirty, it was otherwise undamaged. Curious, I asked investigator Don Enns why the latter had not been destroyed. He said it was bulletproof, made of Kevlar, a Swissair-specific modification to thwart would-be terrorists.
Meeting the families of victims who visited the hangar for tours, part of processing the tragedy, fell to Vic Gerden and his deputy Larry Vance. This had a profound effect on both. They were not only air crash detectives, but effectively grief counsellors. Over the course of the investigation, I got to know them and the team. I can’t begin to describe the admiration I had for all of them and the tireless work they did on behalf of global air safety, let alone the families of those lost. Anyone who flies owes them a debt of gratitude.
Amazingly, after some four years of digging and deliberation – and without the final minutes from the recorders – the team found the likely ignition point, above the ceiling on the right side of the back of the cockpit, tracing it to wires recovered from the ocean floor. They also mapped out how the fire spread and, crucially, why it propagated.
The cover material on insulation blankets between the exterior skin of the aircraft and the interior walls and ceiling had caught fire and spread to other flammable substances. That material, previously certified as non-flammable (because of inadequate standards), was, during the investigation, proven to be flammable. I saw it catch fire and burn easily at an FAA facility in Atlantic City, N.J. All those present watched in silence. As a result of this work, thousands of passenger aircraft had their insulation blankets replaced with non-flammable ones.
The making of the documentary was a milestone for me, professionally and personally. The complexity of the investigation, the pressure of knowing that the world, the airline, the aircraft manufacturer and families would be watching to understand why 229 people had died, was ever present. When the film was completed, we had a special private screening for families and the investigative team, between whom an emotional bond had formed. Family members wanted to see what the investigators had done. They wanted to know something meaningful had come out of the deaths of loved ones – information that could prevent the same thing from happening to others.
After the screening, I left the CBC studio and walked the streets of Halifax alone. I could no longer contain my emotions and burst into tears. I had been living with this story for four years, and because of a confidentiality agreement I hadn’t been able to discuss what I saw during the film’s production with anyone other than a couple of colleagues, principally, Kurt Schaad, my co-producer and now close friend from Swiss National Television in Zurich. I felt a profound sense of release.
The waters of St. Margaret’s Bay hold special meaning for me. Growing up in nearby Halifax, during summers our family frequently made trips to the putty-coloured sand beaches that dot the bay. The water was usually freezing, but glorious. We’d change in and out of our swimming trunks in the back seat of the car, sand lodging where it shouldn’t. Some of my happiest memories are of sunny days spent there. But the area also conjures an ache. While the bay looks as gorgeous and alluring as ever, nearby is a burial site holding remains of those lost, and a memorial wall. In more ways than I can count, this place is a part of me.