The pilot's wife
Swissair widow shares grief with palliative
By Larry Powell
Prisca Zimmermann was in Nova Scotia to talk about coping
with grief after her husband, Urs, died in the crash
of Swissair Flight 111 in 1998.
Swissair pilot Urs Zimmermann.
Greenwich - "Mommy, Daddy has crashed."
As her distraught 15-year-old daughter struggled to wake
her, Prisca Zimmermann, 47, grappled with her daughter's
Could it be true?
Her worst fears were soon confirmed by a CNN reporter,
and thus began a long nightmare for the wife and family
of Urs Zimmermann, captain of the ill-fated Swissair Flight
111 that crashed off Peggys Cove on Sept. 2, 1998.
Urs and 228 other passengers and crew were killed when
the McDonnell Douglas MD-11 aircraft plunged into the Atlantic
shortly after leaving New York en route to Geneva.
"I knew everything had changed," Mrs. Zimmermann said Saturday.
"I knew Urs couldn't have survived."
She cried. "It was the day before Urs's 50th birthday,"
Her first actions were totally mechanical. She called her
brother and then phoned to cancel restaurant reservations
for the next day.
Then, one by one, she phoned those who had been invited
to Urs's birthday party. Within a few hours, her home was
filled with family and friends.
"I didn't think help was possible," she said.
Mrs. Zimmermann chronicled some of her experiences on Saturday
at the annual conference of the Nova Scotia Hospice Palliative
She and her therapist, Dr. Peter Fassler-Weibel, presented
a paper that looks at the needs of people coping with traumatic
incidents, citing Zimmermann's trials in the days, weeks
and years after the Swissair disaster.
The day after the crash Fassler-Weibel visited Prisca,
her two daughters and son. Though he described their first
encounter as disturbing, because he felt powerless, Mrs.
Zimmermann said the doctor helped calm her down.
"He gave me the security of being supported by a specialist
and to keep things in perspective," she said.
As a flight attendant for Swiss-Air, Mrs. Zimmermann was
no stranger to the realities of air travel.
even weeks later, she couldn't bring herself to accept her
Everything that happened after the crash was unpredictable,
new, and shrouded in profound grief, she said. "Grief was
a bottomless abyss."
The tragedy also revived the grief she felt when her three-year-old
son drowned several years earlier. When that tragedy struck,
Mrs. Zimmermann had her husband to lean on. No more.
In mid-October, 1998, Mrs. Zimmermann, her three children,
and the therapist flew to Nova Scotia where they toured
hangars filled with wreckage and personal effects of passengers
"Up to then, everything was just theory," she said. "I
was afraid of what was waiting for me (in Halifax) but I
had to go to shake off the uncertainty."
The sight of the pulverized, shredded wreckage removed
the last vestige of doubt that anybody could have survived.
"The enormous violence which shattered the plane took away
my hope and gave me certainty that my husband's life was
over," she told the crowd of palliative-care workers.
In one area of a hangar, the personal belongings of the
cockpit crew were laid out and Mrs. Zimmermann found and
opened her husband's briefcase.
A picture of Prisca and Urs, taken at an automatic photography
kiosk, fell out.
"It reminded me of a fun shopping trip," she said of the
photograph, which shows a smiling and happy couple.
She was carrying with her one of the other three pictures
from the batch taken at the kiosk. She took it out and laid
it beside the picture from Urs's briefcase. Her daughters
had the other two pictures home in Switzerland.
That was when she started to say goodbye to Urs.
On that same visit, Mrs. Zimmermann and her children took
a boat to the crash site where her children scattered flowers
over the water. But Mrs. Zimmermann felt powerless because
she couldn't bring their father back.
The peaceful atmosphere provided a silver lining, though.
On their way back, the skipper spotted a whale. It was a
moment of change.
"Daddy is in a beautiful place," exclaimed her 11-year-old
son. "Daddy is with the whales."
Mrs. Zimmermann reflected on Urs's fondness for nature,
and whales in particular, and as they turned back to shore,
she felt an inner peace.
The next April, Prisca returned to Halifax and to the crash
site, where her children threw more flowers on the water.
She spread Urs's ashes on the waves.
"He has chosen a very nice place for his grave," Mrs. Zimmermann
said in an interview. "It was just too early."
She described her husband as a good father who always had
time for his children and even the neighbours' kids if they
"He always had time for that. Everybody loved him. He was
a special person."
During the lengthy crash investigation by the National
Transportation Safety Board, speculation of pilot error
was raised. The thought never entered Mrs. Zimmermann's
"He was a very good pilot and instructor, and teacher of
young pilots," she said.
If there was ever a question of safety or mechanical problems,
Urs always stayed with the plane until answers were found.
She hopes recommendations by the safety board will save
lives in the future, but admitted she had not followed the
crash probe closely. "They did a fantastic job, but I never
paid much attention because I lost Urs."
Friday, she visited the Swissair monuments. "Those two
monuments are so beautiful," she said, "it's such a beautiful
place, it couldn't be better."
Mrs. Zimmermann is still a flight attendant and continues
to fly 10 days a month. "I'm working as a flight attendant
in order to carry the scent of the larger world home to
the children, which was something Urs had always delighted
Her oldest daughter now lives in Argentina as part of an
exchange program and carries on her father's passion for
flying as she trains to be a pilot.
Life for her two other children is still very difficult.
"I hope I'm a good mother to them."
She also made a point of thanking Nova Scotians for all
they have done for her. "You will always be in our hearts."