CBSN

Divers Confront Horror Of Crash

More than 180 feet under the ocean surface, the jagged edges of a mangled airplane and the broken bodies of its victims greet the navy divers who are combing the seabed off Peggy's Cove.

Mixed among the electrical cables, landing gear, and fuselage of Swissair Flight 111 are reminders of the 229 people who died so violently there on September 2, suitcases, wallets, a child's Lion King puppet.

"It was like you were standing in the middle of a landfill. There was just stuff everywhere," said Marcel Maynard, a Canadian navy diver who helped retrieve the jet's flight data recorder. "It was just busted up so much it didn't look like an airplane."

The murky waters envelop the wreckage like the fog that hovers over the Nova Scotia coast, giving divers views of 40 or 50 feet at best. At such depths, things appear in black-and-white. Fish don't seem much interested.

The largest sections of the MD-11 are about 50 feet long, Maynard said. From what he's seen, all the plane's windows were smashed.

Also hidden in the gloom a treasure trove worth millions. The valuables, including diamonds, jewels, millions of dollars in cash and a Picasso painting worth an estimated $1.5 million, were on their way to Geneva when the jet crashed into the Atlantic, Swissair said Monday.

There are more than 200 American and Canadian divers on the site, and they descend to the gruesome depths in pairs.

They spend long hours preparing for the descent into the frigid waters, studying sonar scans of the sites below and dressing in dual-layer wetsuits that pump 170-degree water around their bodies. They wear large helmets reminiscent of B-grade science fiction movies.

Some say a "Hail Mary" before they head down, said Lt. Commander Jacques Fauteux, a Canadian navy spokesman.

The actual descent, by an elevator, takes just five minutes. The divers pass through currents that swirl objects around them, human remains, pieces of wreckage.

Breathing a mixture of helium and oxygen through umbilical-like cords, the divers can spend 30 to 35 minutes on the bottom, being careful that their cords don't get tangled in the wreckage.

They talk to their colleagues on the ships by radio, but a special scrambler must decode their high-pitched, helium-fed voices.

The divers can cover 50 to 100 feet in each mission, not much considering the wreck covers at least a square mile of ocean floor.

Their ascent must be done slowly, taking about 40 minutes, to prevent the "bends," a dangerous ailment caused by sudden changes in pressure when divers return to the surface. Back on the ship, the divers spend more than an hour in a decompression chamber.

During their missions, known as "Operation Persistence," they carry mesh bags to fill with whatever they find: human remains and personal effects.

A few days ago, some divers retrieved a wallet. Inside was a photograph of a man and a boy, te boy wearing a child's cowboy hat.

"These guys are tough, and are doing an incredibly tough job, a hard job, but they all have soft spots," Fauteux said, speaking by telephone from the ship on Monday. "It's like a 2-by-4 that you feel straight in the eyes when you see that [picture]."

Maynard, 34, didn't want to talk much about what he saw in the worst in his experience. Helping the families identify their loved ones makes the job easier, he said.

"I feel we're supplying a service to find out what exactly happened, and hopefully this won't happen again," he said.

Authorities say they won't begin hoisting large chunks of the plane until the human remains are removed, and divers have been told it could take months to clear the crash site completely.

"We don't want to treat them like a piece of wreckage," said Lt. John Oliveira, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy, which mans the salvage vessel USS Grapple.

Written by Robin Estrin