Sister of Swissair Flight 111 victim

marks anniversary, promotes book in N.S.


Sister of Swissair Flight 111 victim marks anniversary, promotes book in N.S.

Sat Sep 2, 5:25 PM

By James Keller

HALIFAX (CP) - Eight years ago, Patricia Eberhart's name appeared in newspapers around the world, one of 229 people killed after Swissair Flight 111 crashed into waters off Nova Scotia.

The 51-year-old flight attendant from New York City was among the passengers and crew who died when an electrical fire brought down the MD-11 jetliner near Peggy's Cove on Sept. 2, 1998.

The Swissair disaster was covered in detail by international news media, with graphic descriptions of the crash scene and extensive coverage of the ensuing investigation.

But Ivy Bannister, Eberhart's sister, says many of the personal stories connected to the crash were lost.

Bannister tells her family's story - elevating her sister's death from simply a name on a list - in Blunt Trauma, a non-fiction narrative released earlier this year.

"It was so unreal so as to be unbelievable to find out by radio of the death of your closest blood relative, and to be reliant upon the media for an understanding of the details of what happened," says Bannister, who is in Nova Scotia for the anniversary of her sister's death.

"I think that's why I was so obsessed with giving a public event private meaning. You do feel that these public events will never affect you personally."

Blunt Trauma - a title inspired by the official cause of death listed on Eberhart's death certificate - follows Bannister's family for a year after the crash.

Bannister recalls how she spent months in New York caring for her 80-year-old mother, and Eberhart's death put a strain on their already difficult relationship.

The book also reveals what went through Bannister's mind as she learned more about the crash, including reading the graphic coroner's report that described what was left of Eberhart's battered body.

"When your life is coloured by something like this, everything looks different," Bannister said in an interview. "For a couple of years, the smell of smoke alone was enough to move me from wherever I was in my head to a place I never was, which was at the site of the crash, the smoking ocean."

The plane was flying at night from New York to Geneva when smoke filled the cockpit, prompting the pilots to dump fuel before attempting an emergency landing in Halifax.

Less than 20 minutes later, the jet slammed into the ocean.

Canadian investigators later concluded the fire was linked to an in-flight entertainment system, which included a gambling program.

Wires connected to the system or another source short-circuited, igniting a fire that spread to adjacent insulation, causing a catastrophic system failure.

"I was never really angry about what had happened until I thought that it might be an entertainment system that had been the cause," says Bannister.

"It's better to feel that there was some ghastly mistake or some horrible event that caused this. It's harder to accept that the desire to make a lot of bucks by introducing a gambling system to airplane travellers was a good enough reason for all these people to have died."

Bannister's current trip to Nova Scotia, which was to include a visit to one of the Swissair memorials, marks the first time she's been here since 1999, when a ceremony was held for victims' families a year after the crash.

She recalls the significance of the event in Blunt Trauma.

"The memorial was not, I thought, about closure at all. How could there be closure, when lives had been changed forever?" Bannister writes.

"It was acknowledging what had been too public a death. Now mourning, and the struggle to rebuild lives could continue privately."

Seven years later, she says the release of her book has been the closest to closure she thinks she'll get.

"Writing a book made no difference, but putting it into the public domain somehow took it out of the immediate realm of my experience," says Bannister. "I could now smell smoke without thinking of the airplane."