25 Years On: Veteran Journalist Reflects on Swissair Flight 111 Tragedy Coverage

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A quarter of a century has passed since the tragedy of Swissair Flight 111 nose-diving into the depths off Nova Scotia. Reflecting upon this grim history, a seasoned journalist recalls the task of covering the horrific event.

Rick Grant, with close to four decades of journalism experience at ATV/CTV News under his belt immediately remembers details when Swissair is mentioned. Grant’s memories are vivid of Sept. 2, 1998, the date of a marathon broadcast that ensued immediately after the crash news broke on CTV National News.

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He recalls, “ATV/ CTV was instrumental in the coverage worldwide that fateful night. Our broadcast was being relayed live by networks as esteemed as CNN.” Several teams were hastily dispatched to the crash vicinity of Bayswater and Peggy’s Cove; others were out at sea. Racing alongside Keith Johns and Kevin Doyle in a microwave truck, Grant headed to the control hub of all search operations – the rescue coordination center at HMC Dockyard.

Despite the paucity of immediate official information, the coordination center authorities were very compliant, providing numerous interviews as information trickled in. In the aftermath, Grant’s crew moved to the south end of Halifax and from there to CFB Shearwater, the take-off point for Sea King helicopters joining the rescue operation.

Simultaneously at Bayswater and Peggy’s Cove, on-site teams were transmitting immediate satellite coverage worldwide. The coordination of this massive effort was masterfully executed by Greg Campbell, lauded as one of the finest technical supervisors in television back then.

Grant acknowledges the extensive coverage maintained by anchors Steve Murphy and Ron Kronstein who, despite being uninformed about the incoming information from their field reporters, tirelessly relayed pertinent data to the wide-eyed viewers. A script was conspicuous by its absence.

In these incessant broadcasts, Grant was trying to dredge up memories from his coverage of the Arrow Air Flight 1285 disaster in Gander 13 years prior. He was attempting to crystallize the enormity of the Swissair disaster using insights gleaned from his previous experience.

The extent of the tragedy unfolded between 24 to 48 hours after the crash. Bereaved families of the ill-fated 229 passengers aboard Swissair Flight 111 began to arrive. The gratitude these grieving families displayed for the hospitality extended by Nova Scotia was memorable, observes Grant.

Recollecting the days, weeks and months following the disaster, Grant and his fellow journalists interviewed many of these distraught family members. They also kept pace with the recovery efforts. They had to report about recovering the black box, identifying human remains, and fitting together fragments of the disintegrated plane.

Despite the passage of 25 years, Grant’s memories from that horrific night remain undiluted. He was spared the horrendous task of reporting from a boat, thereby avoiding the grim realities others directly faced. Nevertheless, the experience changed him as he reflects on the insurmountable challenge faced by many, including some from his own profession.

Casting a backward glance, Grant solemnly confesses he never wishes to witness another catastrophe like Swissair Flight 111. However, he expresses gratitude for the opportunity to be a part of the coverage team. He is confident that CTV’s handling of the situation exhibited grace and responsibility in the face of such a tragic loss of 229 lives.