BRED IN THE BONE: Nova Scotians react to the tragedy with an outpouring of aid

Cynthia Driskill is associate editor of The Masthead News, a monthly community newspaper (circulation 15,501), published by her husband, Ron, in Hubbards, N.S., 40 km from Peggys Cove. From the time of the crash of Swissair Flight 111, she joined residents of St. Margarets Bay in responding to the tragedy:

It is, to some extent, bred in the bone. When the jet plane smashed into the waters off Nova Scotia’s St. Margarets Bay, people in local communities reacted as they have for centuries. Minutes after the shattering impact shook houses around the bay, just west of Halifax, fishermen were out in their boats, searching for survivors of yet another disaster at sea. On shore, five volunteer fire departments, dozens of ambulances and a steady stream of individuals headed for Northwest Cove on the Aspotogan Peninsula separating St. Margarets Bay from Mahone Bay to the west originally thought to be the closest community to where the plane had gone down. Alerted by radio bulletins or friends and neighbors with scanners, many arrived simply to do what they could, while others doctors, nurses, first aid technicians had come to offer specific skills.

One was Sandra Peacock, a physician from Chester, almost 20 km from the accident site, who had been about to go to bed when she heard the sound of the crash and felt her whole house shudder. A call to ambulance dispatch sent her and her partner, Dr. Stephen Sheehan, to the government wharf at Northwest Cove. ‘When we got there, a boat was waiting with paramedics,’ said Peacock, a former resident of Calgary. ‘We left about midnight and our role was to look for survivors and help them. When it was apparent, about 4 a.m., that there were no survivors, we returned to shore. We were sorry we had nobody to help but it struck me that nobody hesitated to help.’

Among the first fishermen on the scene was Cecil Zinck of New Harbour, who had been standing on his deck talking to a friend, Vincent Boutilier of nearby Mill Cove, when the jet passed so low over his house that Zinck was left wondering, in the words of his wife, Pearl, ‘if the chimney was still on the roof.’ Seconds later, he heard the crash, and knew by the sound what direction the plane was flying in and that it must have gone into the water. He immediately put out in his fishing boat, soon joined by dozens of other craft.

As word of the accident spread more widely, offers of food, accommodation and transportation for victims’ families and other volunteers poured in from organizations and individuals throughout the area. In communities where many of the same people belong to Royal Canadian Legions, fire departments and service clubs, it was almost impossible to find an organization that had not offered its aid or drawn up a plan for assistance. So many people wanted to help, but did not know where to turn, that the province quickly established a central telephone line and set up a co-ordinator to process the calls.

Doreen Power of the St. Margarets Bay Legion in Seabright, near Peggys Cove, pledged the services of Legion members for cooking and cleaning and even the Legion hall for lodging. Ann Zwicker, whose husband, Pat, is the Seabright Volunteer Fire Department’s chief, sent 20 loaves of sandwiches and coffee on the morning after the crash to the command centre at Peggys Cove. ‘People had been calling all day to offer help,’ said Zwicker. ‘You know, this is a community with a great big heart and I feel so proud when everyone comes to help in a time of need.’

After the province announced that accommodation for investigators, victims’ families and media was the most pressing need it is still tourist season in the area, with most rooms booked into mid-September offers of housing and beds streamed in. Among those wanting to pitch in was Irene Hirtle, a mother of four in Tantallon, 22 km inland from Peggys Cove. ‘I know what I would feel like if it was my family,’ said Hirtle. ‘I couldn’t imagine a family going to an empty hotel room. They need someone to be there to listen, extend love, sympathy, compassion, or help with children.’

Area residents, though, have also been in need of comfort. Local church leaders from the area have spent hours at Peggys Cove and other communities comforting residents and emergency workers dismayed by the tragedy. But in spite of the shock, the impulse to help has been overriding. One fisherman said the speed at which his colleagues rallied without being told or asked is part of their heritage: ‘We live by the sea, we die by the sea, and we work with the sea.’ Other residents explained their generosity in much the same way. As one woman put it: ‘We don’t have much but we want to share what we have it’s a Maritimes thing.’

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