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Swissair leaves deep impression on ex-medical examiner

Nova Scotia’s former chief medical officer, John Butt, had the difficult task of informing families they wouldn’t see their loved ones again. When he returns to Nova Scotia, Butt goes alone to the site, reads the names of the victims aloud and sits by himself in silence.
Nova Scotia’s former chief medical officer, John Butt, had the difficult task of informing families they wouldn’t see their loved ones again. When he returns to Nova Scotia, Butt goes alone to the site, reads the names of the victims aloud and sits by himself in silence. - Paul Cornwall

John Butt stood in front of roughly 600 people on Sept. 4, 1998, and only had one thing to say.

“And that was ‘I’m sorry to tell you, but none of you will ever see your loved ones again,’” recalled the former N.S. chief medical examiner. “And that created a stillness in the room and it was done.”

On Sept. 2, 1998, Swissair Flight 111 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, eight kilometres offshore near Peggys Cove.

All 229 on board were killed, with only one body found intact. Most were decapitated, missing feet and the limbs had no bones — only flesh.

“We acknowledged early on, before there were any difficult questions, that there would not be any human remains that were viewable,” said Butt, who now lives in Vancouver.

Troops walked the shoreline while fishermen, divers, HMCS Halifax and other ships swept the ocean to collect what they could find. The USS Grapple arrived in the middle of September to assist with ongoing efforts.

As he did with the Canadian ships, Butt spoke with the USS Grapple’s crew.

“They were down on their hands and knees recovering material, including picking flesh from a net, and none of them had the understanding as to why they were doing this,” recalled the 83-year-old. “I told them they were the last people and representative of the family that were ever going to see these remains.”

Butt and his team sorted thousands of parts into four categories — one and two were identifiable body parts and three and four were unidentifiable — at the Shearwater hangar.

“Some creatures of the sea made our examinations more difficult,” said the medical examiner.

Letters were given to families with choices on what to do with the remains. Most families didn’t make a decision until the case concluded.

Over a period of time, Butt and the families developed a unique relationship, as they met face-to-face when he could.

“I couldn’t camouflage my own emotions which became very visible to the public,” he said. “But just giving bare details cut and dry, I don’t think that those things are appropriate. People expect more.”

All of his interactions, with the exception of one family, were positive.

All victims were identified through dental records, fingerprints, X-rays or DNA samples by the middle of December 1998.

Twenty-five caskets, each with 100 pounds of unidentified remains, were buried at the Swissair Flight 111 memorial site in Bayswater.

The medical examiner’s relationships with the victims’ families, and crew he worked with, however, surpassed the identification process.

“I made a lot of friendships in various communities,” said Butt, noting the RCMP DNA unit and provincial government. “A significant part of this involved the persona of Nova Scotians.”

Claire Mortimer called Butt about a month ago, he said. Her parents, John and Hilda Mortimer, were killed in the Flight 111 crash.

As time passes, the Vancouver resident hears less from the families.

“I think that some people after 20 years, they don’t want to get engaged in it again,” said Butt. “For them, you can understand that it was nothing more than a deep loss.”

Whenever Butt visits Nova Scotia he returns to the area close to the site of the crash and does the same thing every time.

He goes alone, reads the victims names to himself and sits in silence for about half an hour.

“It’s an important thing for me to do,” Butt sighed, “and I won’t say more than that.” 

- Paul Cornwall

- Paul Cornwall

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