From the beginning, Claire Mortimer understood how deeply they would suffer long after the search for her father ended.
Take Fox Point fisherman Robert Conrad, who was alone in his boat when he discovered a baby’s lifeless body among the devastating carnage.
Swissair Flight 111 had just plunged into St. Margarets Bay under the cover of darkness. Along the coastline many other anxious fishermen took to the waters in the immediate aftermath of the crash hoping to find survivors. They, too, would make horrifying discoveries before it became clear that there would be no survivors. The rescue mission would soon turn into a massive recovery effort of 229 plane passengers.
“I knew right away that it would be a serious problem,” said Mortimer, whose 75-year-old father John Mortimer was aboard the plane. “I appreciate the fact that two decades later I feel like the real reason this tragedy gets commemorated is because people are suffering here still.
“The hidden story is the heroism of the people who went out that night in their boats and the people who went to the shore to put their high beams out on the water. Some of the horrific things that they found, starting right away and for months after, the things that were washing up on the shore, no human being should ever have to see.”
Twenty years after the tragedy, Mortimer is looking to help heal and to bring attention to the others, whom she calls Nova Scotia victims of the Swissair tragedy.
The Maine resident and nurse practitioner has spent the last two decades making countless visits to Nova Scotia, discovering the stories of the men and women still coping with the aftermath of the tragedy.
She is currently in Bayswater, a few minutes’ drive from the Swissair memorial site. Mortimer will be at the location participating in the 20thanniversary memorial service on Sunday afternoon.
Mortimer, who’s overcome Post Traumatic Stress Disorder herself, runs an integrative medicine practice in Maine and specializes in PTSD therapy. She wants to help those Nova Scotia victims suffering with PTSD by connecting with the professionals supporting them, whether psychologists, clergy or any kind of mental health worker.
Mortimer’s partnering with Mi’kmaq filmmaker and Order of Canada recipient Catherine Martin. She hopes to make periodic visits to the province offering free workshops. The pair met at a Swissair memorial service in Indian Harbour six days after the crash. They’ve since developed a close friendship.
Mortimer spoke at that service. In fact, she made a point of asking the organizers of the event to pay tribute to the heroism of the locals.
“I basically said, ‘We have lost our loved ones and we are grieving, and yes this is terrible for us, but we get to go home and move forward with our lives. You’ve had your peace of mind taken from you. You need to make sure you care for each other as much as you cared for us.’ I really meant it, and still do.
“As much as I would love to work with these people one-on-one, I just don’t think it’s possible given how close I am to the tragedy. But I have worked successfully with many PTSD survivors so I would like to come back and give free workshops to anyone who is counselling these people. They may need and be in a position to learn this.”
Mortimer has learned of at least two Nova Scotia men who were involved in the crash recovery effort and since committed suicide. Cpl. Shane Porter was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder a year after the Swissair disaster and released on a medical discharge from the military. He took his own life in July 2014. Mortimer recently found out about another man involved in the recovery who also took his own life.
Paul Comeau and his late brother Eric Comeau took part in the recovery effort as members of the Clare Ground Search and Rescue team. Though never diagnosed with PTSD, Comeau remains convinced he and his brother dealt with some form of the condition. Eric died of a heart attack eight years ago.
They were team captains and over nine days both were moved to several different islands, making one gruesome discovery after another.
“The first thing I saw was an airplane seat,” said Comeau. “We were picking up human flesh and putting them in bags.”
Vicks VapoRub that he and other searchers spread underneath their nose to limit the stench of decomposing flesh was ineffective. He said he and his brother along with the people they were in charge of were not given the proper training or counselling to deal with what they encountered.
“I still wake up with nightmares and smell the (Vicks). It’s awful and now I’ve lost my sense of smell. Still, I have not gotten over the trauma.”
Sherry Veinot, a member of Lunenburg Search and Rescue team, also took part in the recovery over a two-month period. She said the experience changed her life. Her husband Craig also participated. Passports and headsets were among some of the items he found. She does her best to avoid thinking of the experience.
“I didn’t fly for 15 years because I was terrified,” said Veinot. “We were down there when the fog was so thick you couldn’t see a hand in front of you and all our members were going out on boats, private boats, coast guard boats and transported out to islands. My husband and I have talked about it and it was the personal things that he found that were very difficult to deal with.”
Mortimer says she also wants to determine how many people committed suicide after the recovery and someday hopes a memorial will be built in their memory, similar to the Swissair memorials in Bayswater and Peggys Cove.
“They are victims of Swissair as much as my father was. I can say that but I think Nova Scotians are too humble to say that.”
But in her loss, Mortimer has also found joy and many lasting friendships in Nova Scotia, including with acclaimed novelist and poet Budge Wilson. Wilson has also written a collection of poems, After Swissair, “in gratitude and celebration of the thousands of men and women who suffered — and sometimes triumphed — during the months and years that followed the crash.”
Mortimer says her father, a former senior vice-president of the New York Times, would have loved Nova Scotia for the same reason she does.
“He loved the ocean, seafood, beaches, authentic people, truthful upstanding generous and kind, which is what he was. He would recognize that in people here. I recognized that in people when I came here. It’s like my second home.”