All that's left now are the pieces. No account of that misty September night tells the whole story; I nothing is definitive except the end. It was late and dark, and sleep had overtaken most of St. Margaret's Bay, Nova Scotia, so who can say with certainty what happened? One woman claims to have heard screams and seen terrified faces at the jet's windows. Another says the plane flew so low that it sent a massive black shadow grazing over her yard—but no, she saw no faces as it pulled away with engines screaming, and no, she never heard it fall. But one man, who lives not far down the road, will tell you that he heard the impact, six miles away, when the plane dropped into the sea. But these are just jagged glimpses of a speeding truth. Fragments.
Thirty-five miles northeast of the crash site sits the CFB-Shearwater military base and a stark white structure known as Hangar J. Inside, stored in hundreds of brown corrugated boxes, lie most of the exploded remains of the McDonnell-Douglas jet that, on Sept. 2, 1998, left New York City as Swissair Flight 111. Outside, in a fenced lot, lies a wretched array of battered engines, landing gear, blown tires and the jet's twisted aluminum skin, all in varying degrees of decrepitude. A forklift operator lifts a shard of wing and carts it to a scale for weighing.
"We have more than a million pieces of the airplane," says Manny Soberal, an investigator for Canada's Transportation Safety Board. Workers are painstakingly rebuilding the cockpit and galley area on a mold. The strongest clue to the cause of the crash remains a radioed distress call describing smoke on the flight deck. But both of the jet's black boxes ceased taping in the flight's final moments. 'We don't know what was going on in that airplane in the last six minutes," Soberal says.
What came after the crash, though, is not in dispute. Alarms wailed from fire stations all along the neighboring coast. Dozens of fishing boats plowed into the dark waters to help in the vain search for survivors. On the East Coast of the U.S., families of some passengers rushed to Kennedy Airport, where the Geneva-bound flight had originated, to wait for word.
For many others, news of the crash didn't come until daybreak. Former middleweight boxing champ Jake LaMotta was awakened in Manhattan at 6 a.m. on Sept. 3 by a phone call from his lawyer. They could hope for a miracle, the lawyer said. "Ohmygod," LaMotta said. He knew what the call meant. Your son is dead.
In Lyons, France, Eric Babolat, heir to one of the oldest names in sports equipment, was roused by his clock radio. He lay in bed until a voice broke in with a report from Nova Scotia. He sat up and phoned a colleague still sleeping back in New York. "Did my father get on that plane?" Babolat asked. Yes, the colleague said. Babolat knew what the answer meant. Your father is dead.
In Bucharest, Romania, professional tennis player Dinu Pescariu was awakened at 9:30 a.m. by the jangling of his telephone. His best friend told him the news and asked if that was the flight Pescariu was supposed to have taken. Pescariu knew that the question was actually a statement. You are alive.
Pescariu hung up. He sat for a moment and then stood up. He walked across his apartment to the bathroom, bent over the sink and lifted his face to the mirror. His heart began beating faster. The pounding rose from his chest to his head and ears. He broke into a sweat. His hands, then his whole body shook. Pescariu couldn't take his eyes off himself. He stared at the mirror, watching the man inside fall apart.
A plane crash is unique among human disasters because of its images of extreme violence and helplessness, of fear escalating to an unendurable pitch. How long did they know they were going to die? Seconds? Minutes? We imagine the worst because the physics demands it: When an object weighing 230 tons and flying 500 mph hurtles to the earth or into the sea from 33,000 feet, nothing within it can remain intact. That the catastrophe will reverberate through those left living is a given. Who, touched by such an event, could fail to be transformed?
The crash of Flight 111 caused its share of soul-searching. "It's the airplane I fly the most," No. 1 women's tennis player Martina Hingis, who lived in Switzerland at the time, said the next day. "It's terrible to know you don't have any chance up there." But the person everyone at the U.S. Open wanted to hear from that Thursday morning was another Swiss, 1992 Olympic gold medalist Marc Rosset, a 6'7" underachiever not known for his introspection. Rosset had been booked on the MD-11 jet but had decided to stay in New York another day, unwittingly saving his life and that of his coach, Pierre Simsolo. "When you are pretty close, maybe you realize something, " Rosset said. "Maybe I'm going to try to enjoy more of my life. It's going to be a benefit."