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Former N.S. medical examiner reflects on Swissair Flight 111 tragedy 20 years later

Former Nova Scotia medical examiner on his experience investigating SwissAir Flight 111
Dr. John Butt was the medical examiner in Nova Scotia at the time of the Swissair Flight 111 crash. Butt looks back at his time investigating the crash ahead of its 20th anniversary.

When former Nova Scotia medical examiner Dr. John Butt first heard about a plane crashing into the ocean off Nova Scotia on Sept. 2, 1998, he didn’t believe it.

A medical examiner’s nurse had called him that night with the breaking news.

“I said to her, ‘Well I have my doubts that it’s a big plane. I want you to phone them and ask them again.’ So she phoned back to me in a very short time, maybe 10 minutes, and said, ‘Yes it’s a Swissair plane,'” he recalled.

I must say I was incredulous at the beginning and I didn’t really want to believe it.”

READ MORE: The night 229 people lost their lives on Swissair Flight 111

Swissair Flight 111, en route from New York to Geneva, Switzerland, had crashed into the waters off Peggy’s Cove. All 229 people on board perished.

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In the days, weeks, and months that followed, Butt would become an important figure in the investigation. He would provide daily updates to the families of victims and became a familiar face on the news.

“The first contact that I had with families was on the Friday evening of that week. I honestly can tell you that at the time that I stood up, I didn’t know what I was going to say because I only had one thing to say so I said it. And that was, ‘I’m sorry to tell you that you will never see any of your loved ones again,'” he recalled.

“And the strength of the people in the room was actually remarkable because there were maybe three to four people who cried out audibly but the rest of them were just in silence.”

The military, RCMP officers and local volunteers were tasked with the job of recovering remains. Butt says only one body was intact and identifiable.

WATCH: Peter Richardson on the ‘devastating’ work carried out after the Swissair Flight 111 crash

Peter Richardson on the ‘devastating’ work carried out after the Swissair Flight 111 crash
Peter Richardson on the ‘devastating’ work carried out after the Swissair Flight 111 crash

Pathologists began the painstaking task of classifying body parts and using everything from DNA to fingerprints and dental records to provide identification for the remains.

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“In the beginning, we were looking for fingerprints and for DNA specimens which was [the best] for reuniting parts together and we were looking for dental remains, so teeth and portions of the upper and lower jaw with teeth intact,” he said.

“And then we were looking for parts that could be X-rayed that hopefully might be compared to a pre-existing X-ray of the same part.”

He says everyone was positively identified by Dec. 11, 1998 — most of them through fingerprints and dental records, although the use of DNA was growing increasingly useful.

“I would dare to say that at the time, which was September or October of 1998, that that was probably the largest DNA effort that had occurred. And then, of course, 9/11 came along in 2001 and that turned out to be a massive thing,” he said.

READ MORE: Peggy’s Cove residents stepped up following Swissair crash

Butt admits it was a trying time for him and his colleagues, who worked for hours on end — breaking briefly for the Thanksgiving holiday.

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Through it all, he says it was the goodness of people and how Nova Scotians rallied together that he remembers most.

Butt, who now lives in British Columbia, says he thinks of Swissair Flight 111 often and stops by the memorial at Bayswater nearly every year when he visits Nova Scotia.

“I read the inscriptions of all the 229 people who were on board. I look at the whole thing and then I see the little mementos that are still being left there and I just think about it. It takes me about 15 or 30 minutes to do that and then I just go away. And I just do it out of, out of a need,” he said.