ST MARGARET'S BAY is an isolated inlet on the Atlantic Coast of Nova Scotia, a place of small fishing villages and holiday homes. They are used to the sound of aircraft on the great air lane that extends from New York to Europe, the world's busiest aerial freeway. But the noise that they heard on Wednesday night was different. "The motors were still going, but it was the worst-sounding deep groan that I've heard," said Claudia Zinck-Gilroy
It had been dark for two hours when an explosion shook the small clapboard houses around the bay, the shock wave bouncing off the low rocky hills. "It was like something hit the roof," said one local resident.
Nearly two hours earlier, Swissair Flight 111 had left New York bound for Geneva. Its passengers came from all over the world, because this flight linked not just Switzerland and America, but the two main centres of United Nations activity: New York and Geneva. The flight was known as the "UN Shuttle" and up to 10 of the dead were UN officials. The majority - 136 - were Americans, but there were 30 from France, 28 Swiss, six Britons, three Germans, three Italians, two Greeks and one each from Saudi Arabia, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iran, Spain, St Kitts and Russia.
Something had gone badly wrong. The flight crew had reported smoke in the cockpit within an hour after departure, and requested permission to land in Boston. The pilot declared a distress situation one level less than a full-scale emergency. Air traffic control at Monckton in Canada told the pilot to carry on to Halifax, which was closer. He had flown out over the sea to jettison fuel, but had reported increasing problems. Then he was losing height - down from about 33,000 feet, cruising altitude, to about 10,000 feet in eight minutes, a terrific rate of descent. At 10.30pm local time, SR111 was off the radar. The pilots last words were "pan, pan, pan" - a shortened form of the French and German words for breakdown.
Silence fell once more on the bay. The first victims were found by the crews of fishing boats who put out despite the fact that Hurricane Danielle is sweeping up the coast. "Fishermen were coming on the VHF radio asking for body bags and pleading at some points for the Navy to take bodies off their boats," said a Canadian reporter who joined the flotilla. The water was scattered withdebris and body parts.
By daybreak, there was a small flotilla sitting five miles off Peggy's Cove, a picturesque spot with a cluster of small houses, a lighthouse and a restaurant that was now a centre for co-ordinating the rescue. On the horizon, the HMCS Preserver, a Canadian supply ship, and HMCS Ville de Quebec, were patrolling the area, along with other vessels including the Cape Islander …