No Safe Harbor

A plane crash off Canada rekindles several air-safety controversies

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Peggy's Cove was born of a shipwreck. Legend has it that the tiny hamlet on the coast of Nova Scotia was named for a woman pulled back from death at sea by a local sailor. The only survivor of a doomed ship, she was nursed back to health by her rescuer. They fell in love and married. Such romances and heartening miracles are woven into the visions of the village. At St. John's Anglican Church, two paintings that frame the altar serve as fonts of meditation: in one, a fisherman clinging to a tattered sail searches for a lighthouse amid a storm; in the other, Christ walks on the waters not of the Sea of Galilee but of Peggy's Cove. Thus when a plane--not a ship--went down off the cove last week, the seamen of the area felt the old instincts of rescue stir in their veins. What they found, however, was neither romantic nor miraculous. And what moved in their blood was a chill.

Fishing boats, navy ships, even a passenger liner combed the waters off the Canadian coast. Visibility was poor, and in hindsight it was for the best. "We picked up women's purses all blown to pieces as if you put them in a meat grinder," said Eugene Young, who usually fishes the waters for pollock, hake and cod in September. "You had to go awfully slow, because if someone was in the water, you didn't want to run them over." His image of an abattoir was apt. "There was not one bit of hope. Someone's belly here. Intestines over there." Despite the comfort of cove legend, out of the wreck of Swissair Flight 111 came not even one survivor from the 229 people onboard.

What emerged instead was a fearsome slew of questions born of other disasters. As the slow search for debris, bodies and the telltale "black boxes" proceeded--a ritual so morbidly familiar from the TWA Flight 800 crash two years ago--speculation reached for existing paradigms that would explain the fate of a plane belonging to an airline of sterling reputation. What is known of the cockpit's communications with air-traffic controllers appears to rule out terrorism. But not the terror of mechanical failure. And so the questions were asked. Was it a problem akin to what most probably destroyed TWA 800--a stray spark igniting gases in a fuel tank? Or was it some hazardous, poorly packed cargo like the kind that destroyed ValuJet Flight 592 over the Florida Everglades? Or was it something else, some yet unknown and insidious little technicality?

Swissair Flight 111, an MD-11 jumbo jet built by McDonnell Douglas in 1991, left New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport en route to Geneva, Switzerland, promptly at 8:18 p.m. E.T. Not quite an hour later, at 9:14, the Swiss pilot, Urs Zimmermann, radioed, "Pan! Pan! Pan!...We have smoke in the cockpit" to the control tower in Moncton in New Brunswick, Canada. (Pan is an international distress signal less urgent than Mayday.) The pilot requested diversion to Boston, but when told that Halifax, only 70 miles away, was nearer, he responded, "Prefer Halifax." When the plane was about 30 miles away from the airport, Zimmermann advised that he needed more than that distance to land. He was told to turn left to lose altitude. Still descending, the pilot next reported, "We must dump some fuel." At 9:24 he declared an emergency, saying, "We are starting to vent now. We have to land immediately." The plane was cleared for dumping. Six minutes later, it disappeared from the radar.

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