Swissair 111 tragedy remembered

In 2008, The News did an interview with Glen Matheson, a local minister, chaplain and paramedic who assisted with the recovery of Swissair 111 off the coast of Nova Scotia 18 years ago today. Here is his story.

Published on September 3, 2016
Rev. Dr. Glen Matheson holds a picture of the Peggys Cove lighthouse that has hung in his office as a constant reminder since the crash of Swissair Flight 111 10 years ago. The painting is dark, the same way Matheson remembers the site where he worked for two months after the Sept. 2, 1998 crash. Jennifer Vardy Little The News

Glen Matheson didn't sleep Tuesday night. Nothing exceptional had happened during the day.

Just a single phone call, a request for an interview, reminded him and brought back the memories of the time he spent at Peggy's Cove in the wake of the disaster.

He hadn't realized what Tuesday represents. He hadn't done the math. Ten years ago Sept. 2, Swissair Flight 111 crashed off the coast of Peggy's Cove. And in the 24 hours that followed he would go from minister to paramedic to chaplain to griever.

This past Tuesday night, he sat awake and relived some of the nightmares and the worst moments.

"Things I thought I dealt with long ago, they all came back," he said. "It seems like a million years ago, and only yesterday."

September 2, 1998. The Geneva-bound plane Swissair Flight 111 departs New York's Kennedy International Airport at 9:17 p.m. Atlantic time. An hour into the flight, the pilot declares an emergency, dumps fuel and attempts to land in Halifax. The plane strikes the water off Peggy's Cove at 10:31 p.m.

Matheson, the minister at First Presbyterian Church in New Glasgow, was also a paramedic 10 years ago.

The call came in: a plane had crashed off Peggy's Cove. There was no word how large it was - they originally believed it was a smaller plane - and rescuers began to mobilize.

The QEII Hospital in Halifax was emptied and paramedics began racing to the scene.

Matheson was in the first ambulance to leave Pictou County that night. As they left, he glanced at the TV. On it was the blockbuster from the year before, Titanic. The scene where bodies floated in the water after the ship sank was the last image he saw.

"It bothered a lot of the guys," he recalls.

It wasn't until they were halfway to Peggy's Cove that they learned more details.

September 3, 1998. By dawn, after more than eight hours of searching, no survivors have been found.

That's when Matheson changed uniforms, shedding his paramedic's jumpsuit and replacing it with his white collar - as a minister and RCMP chaplain, his role had changed.

As he walked into the hangar at Shearwater Air Force Base, he stepped across tape placed the night before with military precision, each strip marking 300 three-foot by eight-foot rectangles. Stretchers were supposed to go there, a technique developed after Titanic sunk.

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There were no stretchers. The bodies weren't found intact - only one out of the 229 dead was visually identifiable. Instead, the hangar became a morgue.

"We just walked over the tape and did our jobs," he said. "You don't think, you just do it."

September 4, 1998. Grieving families begin arriving in Halifax. They were brought to the ballroom of the Lord Nelson Hotel, hoping to begin the task of identifying loved ones.

It would never happen.

Matheson remembers standing in the ballroom, hearing the voices of people speaking in 19 different languages, and knowing that they were about to tell them something they never expected to hear.

"They were lied to," he said quietly. "They were told they were coming to identify intact bodies, and we had to break the news to them."

Translators began requesting the families produce personal items that might contain a DNA sample that workers could use to determine the identity of the remains. Hairbrushes, toothbrushes, even a baby's soother - all would be needed.

"The enormity of making sure they understood what was happening was … well, it was just overwhelming," he said.

That soon changed, however. Matheson and four Mounties were assigned to the 26 busloads of relatives who arrived at the site, one after another. Items had been plucked from the gray water - teddy bears, photos, suitcases with nametags torn off. All of them were laid out, waiting for identification.

Slowly, the relatives would enter a hangar that contained the personal effects. In that moment, language barriers ceased to matter.

"They recognized my white collar and felt safe," he said. "A lot of the time, just a hug was enough. I discovered words weren't the most important thing - it really changed my thoughts on ministry."

Six years before, in 1992, Matheson had undergone another change, when he was on the scene of a different disaster, this one much closer to home. In the hours and days after the Westray explosion, he'd hunkered down with the family members as they waited for word on the 26 miners trapped underground, offering prayers and support.

It was a tragedy that became a time marker in his life. Swissair was another one - a moment that changed his life - but Swissair still takes his breath away at times. Westray couldn't prepare him for the magnitude of Swissair.

"Westray was a much smaller scale - this was the first time anything of this magnitude happened in this province, it was the first time for any of us," he says simply. "It changes you. It changed all of us. We came together as a province, probably unlike we'd ever done before in history. We knew we had a job to do, and we did it. It's amazing, the strength we got from others."

Matheson doesn't kid himself, though. He knows it won't be the last time. He mobilized but wasn't deployed after Sept. 11, 2001, and expects that at some point, he'll be called again. He's already been placed on call with the military thanks to the Afghanistan mission, and even in the darkest part of the night, he knows he'll answer the call when it comes.

September 6, 1998. Divers found the flight data recorder from Swissair Flight 111, but it turned out the recorder had stopped working several minutes before the crash. A few days later, the cockpit recorder is recovered. Over the next two months, two million pieces of fuselage - the body of the plane - are collected, some no bigger than a loonie. It took 10 weeks to identify the remains of the passengers.

During the next two months, Matheson worked tirelessly, regularly going for 50 to 60 hours before tumbling into bed for an hour or two. He'd go between the three hangars - morgue, personal items and fuselage - switching when one site became "too much" to handle.

"During that year, I had no concept of day and night or time," he said. "You're so overwhelmingly exhausted that time doesn't mean anything to you anymore."

The smell of jet fuel was still thick in the air. For the rescuers, it burned the back of their throats, robbing them of all sense of taste.

When he finally returned home to Pictou County, it was another 17 months before he had a full night's sleep.

"It had a massive affect on my health," he admits. "But at the same time, it gave me a huge appreciation of the support here in Pictou County."

September 2, 1999. A memorial is erected near the crash site. Family members return to mark the anniversary.

Matheson, along with Father Bill Burke, a Catholic minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, went back to Peggy's Cove. Each minister was assigned to a lobster boat and travelled with family members to the site of the crash.

"Some of them brought flowers, mostly roses," Matheson remembers. "Others, they brought the ashes, and we did committal services."

The day was calm and sunny, a far cry from the dark and dismal weather that marked the days after the crash the year before.

"The water was absolutely, totally calm," Matheson remembers. "There wasn't a ripple, and according to the man who piloted my boat, it's never been seen before or since."

Matheson would say a few words, often calling on his long-ago learned Hebrew, and watch as they'd drop the flowers into the water.

"We'd come out with the next boat and you could see the flowers still slowly going down," he said. "There were layers among layers of roses, going 20 feet down, and you could see them all."

Approximately 15,000 body parts were collected after the crash. Some of them were too small to identify; on the first anniversary, they were buried in caskets near the site.

Matheson didn't return again until last year's anniversary. It took the eight years that passed since his last visit to gain the courage to go back.

"It was a long day … the things I'd forgotten came rushing back," he said. "I'm glad I went, I felt stronger when I walked away."

When he thinks of that time, he remembers the sight of the flowers, slowly sinking to the bottom of the sea, and the faces of the family members. Some he kept in touch with over the years, saying only that he walked a long journey with them.

When this year's anniversary rolls around on Tuesday, he plans to go to an isolated spot on a beach here in Pictou County, and remember.

"I'll remember those who died, but also the response teams, the search and rescue, the fishermen," he said.

"None of us can walk away from it. You'll see it on TV, hear about it on the radio, and you'll stop and watch it. It draws you in, and you just can't forget. I'll never forget."