When Swissair Flight 111 went down near Peggy’s Cove, N.S., on Sept. 2, 1998, killing all 229 people onboard, the tiny village known for its iconic lighthouse on the rocks was transformed into a hub for emergency crews, RCMP, media and the families of those lost.
In the midst of the chaos, many residents stepped up to assist in a number of ways and faced the gruesome ordeal head-on.
“We came up the night before,” recalled Peter Richardson who was in Lunenburg when the tragedy struck. “I jumped aboard a boat and we came up here.”
“I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “When we arrived here we started seeing debris in the water and as we got closer it was just a carpet of debris.”
“Anything that would float was floating.”
The aircraft was reduced to shrapnel. Over one million pieces of it would later be recovered.
WATCH: In the midst of the chaos of the Swiss Flight 111 flight crashing 20 years ago, many residents stepped up to assist first responders, who were forced to tackle the ordeal head on. Jeremy Keefe has more.
But just hours after the crash, Richardson and others, better suited to pulling fish from the water than anything else, were soon removing far more disturbing things from the sea.
“We were pulling in body parts,” he explained.
“The first thing we brought aboard was a man’s thigh and we had nothing to put it in so we put it in a fire bucket.”
“We had to walk by that, you know, until they came around and gave us bags.”
Now 20 years later Richardson has relocated to Peggy’s Cove.
The haunting scene of the tragedy is where he makes his living, running a tour boat company, an inn and a food truck.
He is a good ambassador for the village and is kept especially busy during tourist season but the memories of the days following the Swissair disaster are ones he’ll likely never forget.
“It was devastating to see all that,” he said.
“I was talking to a guy who was in the Vietnam War and he said ‘we just ran by that stuff, you guys had to actually pick it up and put it away,’” Richardson explained.
Initially, Richardson said, the authorities asked all small vessels to leave the area before calling them back to the water shortly thereafter to assist with the recovery.
John Campbell owned a whale watching company when the crash occurred and wasted little time before attempting to help in any way possible.
“The four of us headed out probably about a half hour after we heard about it,” he explained.
“Which I think was less than an hour after it happened.”
WATCH: Vic Gerden on the investigation into SwissAir Flight 111
Almost immediately Campbell was told by the RCMP they would be commandeering his boat, which they did for the next five days.
As the owner of The Sou’Wester, the restaurant located in the parking lot overlooking the lighthouse, Campbell was needed much more on land.
“They had a command centre, they were setting that up,” Campbell explained of what his restaurant was transformed into for the following week. “Helicopter pads all on the property here so I stayed in and helped co-ordinate the boat and the restaurant.”
“It was co-ordination of whatever they asked,” he recalled.
“At one point they needed phone lines, fax machines, the communication of where people could set things up.”
Within a day of the crash, Campbell remembers families of the victims arriving.
He helped in locating places they could stay at the time but it wasn’t until years later that he was able to do something for them that he himself found a great sense of relief in.
“I was hired by the insurance company of Swissair to take family members out to spread ashes,” he said of excursions he went on for two years following the incident.”
“It was almost therapeutic, to be honest,” he said. “It was very rewarding and I was glad to be part of that.”