Reporter’s Notebook: How reporters told the story of Swissair Flight 111

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Swissair Flight 111 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean at 10:31 p.m. Sept. 2, 1998.

When search and rescue officials were first alerted to an aircraft in trouble off the Nova Scotia coast, they began preparing for the worst. That’s how the first inkling of the unfolding disaster leaked out to the public.

Like most newsrooms in those days, the former Halifax Daily News kept police scanners running day and night. I worked the night beat for the newspaper, so it was my job to listen to the scanners.

When I was out on assignment, listening to the police, fire and ambulance dispatchers fell to the night-time news editor, who usually worked designing and laying out the front page of the paper.

It just so happened that the night of the crash, we were both at the city desk listening to the scanner.

I was starting to wrap up and about to head home when I overheard a radio conversation between a 911 dispatcher and an ambulance crew.

The dispatcher was directing them to go to QEII hospital in Halifax and load every portable oxygen bottle they could carry into their ambulance and head to a fire station in Hubbards.

When the crew asked why, the dispatcher said Hubbards would be used as an ambulance staging area for a mass casualty situation.

“A jetliner crashed,” is all the dispatcher said.

I remember turning to the news editor asking, “What’s a jetliner? Is that some sort of bus?”

And then, a moment of dark realization hit us both. It was the first clue that a major disaster was unfolding on our doorstep.

My first call was to the operational headquarters for search and rescue in Atlantic Canada — the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre, located at HMC Dockyard in Halifax.

The duty officer confirmed that an internationally bound passenger plane had crashed near Peggy’s Cove. It was unknown if there were any survivors. The duty officer gave me some basic information about the plane, including the number of people aboard, initially and mistakenly believed to be 227.

He said a search and rescue helicopter was dispatched, along with a nearby coast guard vessel. The duty officer also confirmed that a number of coast guard auxiliary boats and private vessels were making their way to the crash site south of Peggy’s Cove.

We pressed copy editors into working the phones to call random people in the Hubbards area, getting as much information as we could. Many said they heard a jet flying so low it rattled the dishes in their cupboards. We also began calling police, the airport — basically anyone we could think of — to start building a picture of what happened.

Richard Dooley helped cover the Swissair Flight 111 crash for the now-defunct Daily News. He now works at Global Halifax as a senior producer.

Alexander Quon/Global News

Between those phone calls, we began calling in all our available reporters, photographers and senior editors. The front page of the paper was thrown out, and the delivery people who had begun assembling outside the print room were told to brace themselves for a long night.

Staff began arriving in the newsrooms and were dispatched to St. Margaret’s Bay and to other key locations.

We thought if there were survivors, they’d be brought to the QEII hospital. We sent a reporter there and he called back, saying the hospital was gearing up for mass casualties. Patients were transferred out of the emergency department to make room. Blood was shipped in, and additional medical and surgical staff called in to help.

He called back later that night when it became obvious there would be no survivors, telling us the ER staff were clearly dejected that they could do nothing to help.

International news agencies began calling the newsroom. I answered calls that night from CNN, BBC, Agence-France Presse, and others, all trying to get as much local information about the crash as they could.

We continued gathering information from the phones and from reporters in the field all through the night. At some point, one of the senior editors took me aside and told me to start writing. It would be a three byline story: my then-colleagues Brian Flinn and Rachel Brighton were in the field, feeding back information.

We finally put the paper to bed between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., but I stayed with the story through rest of the morning and through the next day.

Our final story was flawed and messy, fueled by adrenalin and written at a fever pitch.

That sense of desperate urgency would remain with the newsroom for weeks after the crash.

One of my colleagues was by morning heading out on a local fishing boat, where he would do some of the best reporting that came out of the whole tragedy.

I left the newsroom early the next morning — the sun was just rising — and drove to Peggy’s Cove, too worked up to sleep.

Somehow I got behind the police line and made my way into the village.

The quaintness of Peggy’s Cove was transformed by a large-scale military operation. The tourist village now a forward operating base for the search and recovery operation.

Helicopters flew in low over the lighthouse, landing in a parking lot more accustomed to tour buses than military choppers.

I stayed there until it was time to file my next story. But I would return to Peggy’s Cove many times over the next few weeks. I would be there when the family members of victims were brought to the shore to see the place where their loved ones died. Hearing their sobs and seeing the anguish on their faces would stay with me for years.

I would stay with the story for the next five years, covering it almost daily at first, then less frequently until the final report on the crash was published by the Transportation Safety Board in March 2003.

It would, at times, consume everything I did. I would write sometimes a dozen stories a week related to the crash. My daily routine began with a check with the TSB investigators. I’d make checks two or three times a day at the start — eventually checking the status of the investigation once or twice a week.

I would get anonymous tips — mostly from conspiracy theorists, each with their own theory on why the plane crashed. None of them proved true.

Over the years, I would stay in touch with family members, some through email or phone calls, but mostly through the Families of Swissair Flight 111 message board, which became a support network for the families. At times, the therapy would work both ways. While many of the family members were skeptical of large news outlets handling their stories in a sensitive way, they seemed to be truly appreciative of local reporting.

The families looked to local reporters to keep them informed on the recovery operation and the investigation. Seeing how some of the families truly appreciated local reporting was inspiring and helped sustain coverage of the story through its darkest moments.

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