Emergency Workers Recall the TWA Flight 800 Disaster
Swissair Crash Jogs Memories

N E W   Y O R K, Sept. 3 — Endless deep-sea dives to retrieve bodies and wreckage.
A frantic search for two “black boxes” that possibly hold the secret of what brought down the intercontinental jet flight.
     The wrenching task of meeting grieving families waiting for the painful details.
     These images are very real for emergency workers who attended to the gruesome crash two years ago when TWA Flight 800 plunged into the ocean off Long Island, N.Y.
     The news that Swissair Flight 111 had hurtled into the ocean depths off Nova Scotia threw their memories into instant replay. It is all happening again.
     They know all too well what lies ahead for those now joining the recovery efforts.

Treacherous Ocean, Churning Currents
In some ways, the conditions of the two crashes differ. The Swissair catastrophe took place over fog-shrouded, choppy, cold seas. The TWA flight met its fate on a balmy July evening over a calm ocean. Witnesses described the conditions as “serene.”
     The ocean around Halifax can be treacherous this time of year and churns with fast-rushing currents. Winter arrives early in the northern climate and daylight slips into pitch dark much sooner than on Long Island. All of these things make recovery tasks more daunting.
     “It’s a different logistical challenge and certainly would have made our job more difficult, but I’m sure the Canadians are well suited for the conditions,” says Mark Miller, president of National Response Corp., a company that played a key role in recovery efforts of TWA Flight 800.

Although Miller’s firm was assigned to containing spilled jet fuel spreading out over the ocean, its two ships arrived soon after Flight 800 crashed and the crews helped recover bodies from the ocean.
     Even though Miller sees how the conditions differ under which the two crashes occurred, he also recognizes the grim similarities.
     “It can be so hard to focus on the work when you see the magnitude of the disaster and the loss of life, but you have to know that every effort has a purpose,” says Miller. “People want their loved ones returned. Anything that can be done to achieve has importance.”

Victims Warned of Coming Fate
One factor that may make locating victims an easier task this time around: The Swissair passengers had warning that they were in trouble.
     Some 16 minutes elapsed after the crew first reported smoke in the cockpit and the plane disappeared from radar tracking. Swissair victims had time to put on life preservers.
     Those on TWA Flight 800 had no warning to prepare for the worst before the plane exploded in midair.
     But those who took part in recovery efforts of Flight 800 find the similarities far more profound than the differences.
     “I learned about the Swissair accident this morning, and I began to relive Flight 800 again,” says Dennis Michalski of the New York State Emergency Management Office. “There is this initial hope that people may have survived followed by the slow recognition that there is all this gruesome work ahead.”

There is also the healing, both for the families and the workers involved with gathering the wreckage left in the wake of a deadly crash.
     “You see another crash and it jogs your memory,” says Joe LeViness, a disaster expert for New York’s mental health services who coordinated counseling after the Flight 800 crash. “Families of the victims appear with their children. I never expected that.”
     LeViness recalls that his team learned very quickly to set up services for the children and to keep them away from the daily briefings for families. The kids had no reason to learn of the sad details. Early on, they also brought in interpreters who spoke English, Italian and German to relay the news simultaneously.
     “People speak all these languages on international flights and it was very difficult for families,” he says.
     Those who are working on the recovery operation may also need attention.
     “Think of the poor fishermen going out to help save a life and be heroic only to fall upon a horrific scene,” he says. “Even the hotel workers need debriefing. They, too, become involved as they take on the grief of the families.”

No Survivors After Swissair Crash

“It can be so hard to focus on the work when you see the magnitude of the disaster and the loss of life, but you have to know that every effort has a purpose.”
—Mark Miller, National Response Corp.

Origin: Both were international flights that departed from Kennedy International Airport in New York.

Water: Both disasters took place in flight over the ocean.

Casualties: All passengers and crew members were reported dead. Swissair Flight 111 had 229 people aboard. TWA Flight 800 had 230.

Ocean Conditions: The waters off Nova Scotia are cold, choppy and known to be treacherous. Swift currents may disperse the debris and bodies much farther. Rainy weather, a remnant of Hurricane Danielle, has hampered rescue efforts. Waters off Long Island following the crash of TWA Flight 800 were calm.

Shore Conditions: The rocky shoreline of Nova Scotia, with many bays and inlets, makes it more difficult to search for debris and victims. Communications among workers may be difficult. They may have to rely on helicopters. Long sandy beaches line Long Island, where searchers used four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Daylight: The northern position of Nova Scotia means the days are shorter for searching than on Long Island.