August 31, 2018 6:00 am

‘Suddenly it became real to me’: Writing the book on the Swissair crash

Stephen Kimber, author of Flight 111: A year in the life of a tragedy, sits down with Global News anchor Sarah Ritchie to look back at the Swissair Flight 111 crash.

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In the hours and days after the crash of Swissair Flight 111 droves of journalists descended on Peggy’s Cove and Halifax.

But Stephen Kimber wasn’t among them, not at first.

“I was working on another book,” he said.

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“I didn’t listen to the news until six o’clock that night, so almost 18 hours after it happened was the first time I’d heard (about) it.”

He soon realized he had a personal connection to the international flight.

“In the middle of the newscast they got the first word on who the victims had been, and one of them was a guy named Pierce Gerety, who was my brother-in-law’s best friend and I had met him a couple of times,” he said.

“And suddenly it became real to me.”

WATCH: Stephen Kimber on what prompted him to write his book on Swissair Flight 111

The book he was working on was quickly shelved. For the better part of the next year, Kimber focused on a new project, Flight 111: A year in the life of a tragedy.

The book is an in-depth look at the lives of the people involved in one of the worst disasters to ever hit Nova Scotia. It details who they were, why they were on that flight from New York to Geneva on Sept. 2, 1998, and what happened to the families and loved ones left behind when 229 lives ended abruptly in the ocean.

Kimber also tells the stories of some of the many Nova Scotians who pitched in to help, and officials whose lives were interrupted by a nearly five-year investigation.

“Fishermen from around that area have a long history of, you know, if somebody is in trouble they all just muster at the docks and go out and try to rescue them,” he said. “What they thought they were getting into was something like that — they were going out into a situation where a small plane had come down, they’d heard the noise, but they hadn’t heard any news, they didn’t know what it was.

“And then of course they get out there, and they’re greeted with this horrific scene.”

Kimber says 6,000 Nova Scotians sought counselling in the period after the crash, a testament to how deeply the tragedy and the subsequent investigation affected people.

WATCH: The Nova Scotian response to the Swissair Flight 111 crash

The disaster also resulted in sometimes remarkable connections between the families of those on the plane and Nova Scotians. Kimber says in many cases, he came upon the stories of those connections by accident.

“The Seventh Day Adventists befriended this woman from New York who had lost her daughter and seemed to be all on her own, and they invited her to go out to dinner with a fisherman who was also a Seventh Day Adventist, they went out to his house. And it turned out that he had been the person who had found her daughter’s jacket from the crash. And they became friends.”

Several of the families of those who died in the crash have spent time in the province in the last 20 years. Some even moved here for a time.

“There was something strange about how important this place became for these people,” Kimber said.

WATCH: What was the cause of the Swissair Flight 111 crash?

Two decades later, Kimber says he thinks the anniversary of the crash will bring back a lot of memories.

“I think about the people that I met on both sides of that divide,” he said. “In 2013 when I did the initial update of the book, I spent a little time tracking some of those people down and finding out what had happened in their lives. And their lives had gone on, but it had never gone away.”

“I do wonder what’s happened with some of those people and how they feel today.”

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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