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I Remember That Day And I Don't Know Why - Life's Come Full Circle - 1997's Doomed Swissair Flight 1

June 8, 2017

Everything was routine. Wake-up very early, work all day, get home extremely late, repeat. This was the way most of the 1990’s were. Where one day, bleed into the next, one continuous blur.. However, one event, would break-up the robotic state I was in. And I remember this one particular day precisely, and I don’t know why.

I was living on Broadway, which is part of the Yonge and Eglinton or uptown area of Toronto. Also known affectionately as, the 'Young and Eligible'. Mostly my life was routine, other than our actually job itself, which was anything but. Everyday, brought us to a new place,new people (actors, models etc) and locations scattered throughout the GTA (for the most part).

As normal, my alarm-clock (s) as I usually had at least 2 or 3 scattered throughout my bedroom in case of an overnight power failure and loss of power from Hydro One to Hydro none.

The date was September 2 1997 and I awoke at 5am by chorus of annoying and arrogant sounds from different corners around my bedroom. I would then proceed to the kitchen to push the ‘button’ to my already prepared the night before, coffee machine. Drink a glass of water, then walk over (turning lights on along the way as it was still dark before the sunrise) to the television set on, and listen to the background news as I prepared to head off to work.

This is when I first learned of the news; A commercial aircraft - Swissair flight 111 had crashed off the coast Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia, into the Atlantic Ocean, with 229 lives on board. My heart dropped. The television remote still in my hand, but I had to put it down on the coffee table, as I knew I was going to be watching for a little longer than expected, and took a seat on the sofa next to me.

Everything was still un-clear by the media reports. Emergency crews were still searching for survivors …and I was certainly hoping they would find them. All of them.

This was a time well before the average person had cell phones, home computers and accompanying internet let alone, email, and of corse, more than a decade prior to the horrific events of 9/11. Which brought the term ‘terrorism’ into our everyday lexicon.

Looking up to my clock on the wall from the seated vantage point of my living room sofa, time was ticking, and I had better get my butt in gear because I had a cross-town drive for a 7am on-set call time, which for an AC meant, at least a half hour earlier, in the Toronto beaches.

Loading my camera ditty-bag, which encompassed my film change tent, m.o.s. camera slate, tons 45 pounds (or at least if felt like) of multi colours of tape ranging from camera, to gaffer and some that had melted and bonded to each other and I just never took the time to unleash and separate from the melted glue that bonded them so tightly.

As I started my car and turned on the car radio, the breaking news continued. Swissair Flight 111 had crashed into the Atlantic ocean off Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia.

By this point, the radio interviews had begun. Eye witness accounts, police and investigator interviews, they all started and this is what I would cling to as I made my way navigating through the cross-town traffic. All the while hoping, that I had no family, friends or colleagues, on this doomed flight.

As I pulled-up to the Beaches location, there were the usual daily faces you’d see from the fellow crew members that you’d be fortunate enough to work with when things are so busy. And when your busy working with a particular D.P (Director of Photography ) you usually worked with all the same crew which, in and of itself, became your working family. This commercial shoot, the D.P. was Peter Hartmann. And with him came the 1st A/C or Focus Puller; Ernie Meershoek, and with Ernesto, would come me, the Second A/C and Film Loader. Grip Department was Doug Reid, and his multi-talented crew. Hartmann’s Gaffer was Scott Schaffer and his talented and fun crew.

I remember everything, and I don’t know why.

As the crew family slowly made their way into the location, everyone walked a little slower, with drooping shoulders, and their head, slightly lowered. By this point it was clear, we all had learned the news of the tragic plane crash off the coast of our very own country, Canada. And it was also clear to me, how everyones heart was weighing heavy for the potential loss of life.

You have to understand, tragic events like this, didn’t happen here (Canada), they happen elsewhere.

By mid-morning we would come to learn, that sadly, all 229 lives were lost on Swissair Flight 111.

Years later: Present day

I can look back and remember everything about this day. I cannot remember the day before nor, the day after.

Something that had been a burning desire deep inside my chest for many years, was to relocate and live on, Canada’s beautifully pristine, west coast. And with having too many good friends pass away in recent years, this expedited my plans for the future

So, Having packed-up and bit the proverbial bullet, I picked-up and drove across our magnificently scenic country heading west, very west, until there was no more west to drive to. This brought me to my new home city of Vancouver, British Columbia. This is where I would set-up-shop, be based out of, and continue with my Freelance - Photography, Fine Art Photography and Motion Picture - Career.

After finally finding an apartment in (as you well know) this extremely pricey and competitive real estate market, I then had to go and really explore the city. The best way to discover a city, any city, is on foot. So, with by camera over my shoulder and leaving my car parked, I jumped-on the local city transit and headed downtown. To venture the real downtown core, using my camera as my passport to adventure.

It was early February. The one and only day that the non-stop - comparatively biblical deluge of rain, would let up. So, this was my window of opportunity to explore.

Explore I did. I walked up and down the streets of Granville,Hornby,Howe - up and down but…something was missing, nothing initially jumped-out at me enough where’d I’d find myself say ‘wow’, which is what I’d often find myself doing when I discover a new place or area.

I had only taken 3 or maybe 4 photographs this entire day and honestly, some of them were forced, just to at least have something in my camera for the end of the day, to feel somewhat accomplished. Feeling a little lacklustre, I stood at the one and only bus stop that I knew would get me home. Under the grey overcast sky, a big blue city bus pulled-over to give me a ride back to my new (to me) casa.

As I boarded the bus and did the long stroll to the back, looking side to side at the already seated passengers, always looking for an attractive woman, for the serendipitous meeting , and a possible lifetime mate. I would sit myself down on the long bench seated with my back to the window. As I looked around to see my new transit neighbours, I noticed a man with a slight chin-beard. As I at the time, was also in growth-mode of my very own. I reached-up with my right hand and slightly puled on the new hairs of my chin, and made a slight kind and comedic reference in recognition to the man seated directly across. This slight gesture on my behalf, would break down any possible ice that would allow 2 strangers to start conversing, and utilizing the time and space, for what could inevitably be, a long, boring and probable, lonely, bus ride.

In conversation with this man, I would learn that he was Hida First Nations. As I wanted to learn more about this, I would ask more questions, as the bus we were riding would brake hard, or throttle fast, jerking us from side to side. I would also try to include other passengers into the conversation, along the way, trying my best, to include other’s that didn’t want to necessarily - sit alone. Being cognizant of my surroundings, I could tell some were listening, but not joining the conversation. We became their ‘entertainment’.

As the bus slowly filled-up to standing room only and my stop to exit was approaching, I slowly made my way to the side door, in preparation for my departure. And while exiting the bus, I struck-up another conversation with a young woman.

I remember everything about that day and I don’t know why

Gina, as she politely introduced herself, through our introduction at the side of the road, as a loud diesel bus pulled away, heading to it’s next destination.

Gina, proceeded to inform me that I look familiar to her, had we met before she asked? hmmm, was my initial vocal response. I’m relatively new here in Van, I responded. Are you from Ontario? I would ask next. No, came the reply.

Through more talking and learning about one another, as we stood just off the intersection. Gina, divulged that she is an accomplished writer. And the winner of the CBC Literary award ( a very prestigious award ). Gina, then proceeded to ask if I remember the Swissair crash that happened nearly 20 years prior to our meeting. Yes! was my response, as the encore of memories started to rushing to fill my mind.

Gina Leona Woolsey, had completed a biography on the man who would head-up and lead the pain stakingly arduous task, of identifying all 229 individuals, whose remains were scattered all along the Atlantic ocean, and the coastal shores of Peggy’s Cove.

The Writer and the Photographer .

In our side-of-the-road introduction, and after being excited to learn of Gina Woolsey’s award winning accomplishments. I’d also have introduced myself and giving my film/tv and photography career background. And maybe enlighten her a little as to why I drove across Canada, to now, standing with her, engaged in conversation on a city sidewalk and in a city, I am unfamiliar.

We exchanged website,email and contact details of one another.

In the weeks to follow, Gina and I would have coffee at the local, (non corporate) coffee house. It’s on these conversations that Gina, CBC Literary award winner, would reveal that she liked my work/portfolio on my website, and would I be interested and available to hire, for an editorial style photoshoot with her main subject of her biographical book on, Dr. John Butt, Chief Medical Examiner of Nova Scotia and Chief Medical Examiner of the doomed Commercial Jetliner - Swissair Flight 111, whom had the gruesome task of identifying the thousands of pieces of human remains, scattered throughout the Atlantic Ocean.

Yes, was my response to the photoshoot with Gina and Dr. John Butt.

For me, this photoshoot was extremely important. It had to capture the essence of not just The Chief Medical Examiner of Swissair Flight 111, Dr. John Butt. I had to also capture the human spirit, of John himself.

I don’t know why this plane crash affected me so much. I don’t know why I can remember that day so well. I don’t know why years later and a country apart, I would be connected if even in a slight-degree, to Swissair Flight 111.

For me, this came full-circle, and I don’t know why.

Paul Cornwall


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