Where in Canada: The Everyday Heroes of Nova Scotia

The 1998 Swissair 111 crash was a disaster of immense proportions, and Gina Leola Woolsey’s documented its aftermath in her new book Fifteen Thousand Pieces (Guernica Editions), about examiner Dr. John Butt. What rose to meet the disaster was the caring community of Peggy’s Cove, NS, and beyond.

The cover of Fifteen Thousand Pieces by Gina Leola Woolsey. The cover features a map of the Swissair 111 crash site.


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Dr. Butt was the Chief Medical Examiner of Nova Scotia when Swissair Flight 111 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, not far from Peggy’s Cove and its iconic lighthouse on the mouth of St. Margarets Bay. I spent five years crafting a biography of Dr. Butt, titled Fifteen Thousand Pieces: A Medical Examiner’s Journey Through Disaster, and in the process, interviewed many Nova Scotians.

It started with Bob, a fisherman who lived close to Peggy’s Cove. We sat at his long wooden table with mugs of tea and something sweet made by his wife, Peggy, who was quietly busy in the kitchen. Bob, soft-spoken and rugged, told me his Swissair story. How he was snoozing on the couch around 11pm on a rainy September night when the television news report of a crash snapped him awake. How he rushed to his boat in the dark and headed out to save anyone he could find. How he recovered the body of a child from the water, and how it changed him. Occasionally, Bob asked Peggy for confirmation of one fact or another. She always knew how to fill in the blanks.

I had an ocean view out the sliding glass doors across from where we sat. “How did you get the body out of the water?” I asked.

A photo from the coastline of Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia. There are small boats in the foreground and a low mountain on the horizon line. The day is bright, with puffy clouds in the sky, and the water is calm.
Photo of Peggy’s Cove by Nataliia Kvitovska, Unsplash.

Bob answered calmly, his voice steady as he recounted the specifics of those horrendous moments, an experience he later came to think of as a blessing. He’d lived his life with the sea — her bounty, her beauty, and her deadly ways.

There were no survivors. There were no intact bodies, save one. The force of the crash was immense and devastating, and the rescue effort had turned into a recovery operation by the light of daybreak. Dr. Butt was flown out to the naval ship serving as the floating morgue where body parts recovered by the small army of volunteer fishermen were collected and tagged before they were sent to the large makeshift morgue in a naval airplane hangar in Dartmouth. The surface of the water was covered with a mass of debris from the crash. Floating viscera mixed with seat cushions and children’s stuffed toys.

The people of Nova Scotia’s south shore did not hide from the carnage. They strapped on their rain gear, donned their rubber boots, and headed to the shore to help. Hundreds of volunteers scoured the rugged coastline of St. Margarets Bay, buckets in hand, no questions asked. The mission left many wondering if their beloved bay would ever be the same. Those who stayed home found other ways to help. They spent hours baking and preparing meals for the volunteers. One by one, they arrived at the coordination post and unloaded piles of cookies, cakes, and sandwiches with homemade bread to feed the team of volunteer searchers, and any other ragged soul who might need a bit of love from a home kitchen.

The provincial government coordinated with local businesses in the small hours of the morning after the disaster to aid in the recovery operation. The Lord Nelson Hotel in downtown Halifax gave its space and workforce to the families and loved ones of the victims. The mourners came from far and wide, and when they arrived, the people of Nova Scotia welcomed them with neighbourly care and compassion. All along the coast highway, signs of love and support were tied on mailboxes and nailed to fence posts, many adorned with bouquets of fresh flowers or giant red hearts.

The recovery and identification of the victims took nine months and cost the province millions. When I interviewed officials with prescribed roles during the aftermath, they were clearly changed by the magnitude of the task. It was their job, and it had to be done. But the everyday heroes of Nova Scotia, the people like Bob and Peggy, were the ones who changed me, the ones who were a blessing to meet.

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A photo of author Gina Leola Woolsey, a light-skinned woman with chin length dark hair, wearing a white shirt.

CBC Award-winning author Gina Leola Woolsey tugs at your heartstrings with written portraits of people striving to find love, self-acceptance, and belonging in an ever-changing world. She left her corporate career mid-life to pursue an education in creative writing, earning a BFA from the University of British Columbia and an MFA from the University of King’s College. She lives wherever the narrative takes her. Currently, her time is split between small-town Alberta, downtown Montreal, and her hometown of Vancouver.

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Gina’s book Fifteen Thousand Pieces is available on All Lit Up or at your favourite independent bookstore. For more Where in Canada, click here.