Sunday, June 17, 2001 Back The Halifax Herald Limited

The pilot's wife

Swissair widow shares grief with palliative care workers

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.

By Larry Powell

Greenwich - "Mommy, Daddy has crashed."

As her distraught 15-year-old daughter struggled to wake her, Prisca Zimmermann, 47, grappled with her daughter's terrifying announcement.

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," she said.

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 Care Association.

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.

Yet even weeks later, she couldn't bring herself to accept her husband's death.

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 and crew.

"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 needed help.

"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 mind.

"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 in doing."

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."

With the Canadian Press

Copyright 2001 The Halifax Herald Limited