Horrific Air Canada crash gets permanent memorial site after 43 years - Macleans.ca

Horrific Air Canada crash gets permanent memorial site after 43 years


TORONTO – A memorial garden dedication takes place Sunday at the site of one of Canada’s worst aviation disasters, a former farm field that for decades continued to yield bits of human remains and wreckage.

For some, like Lynne Genova who was in bed a few kilometres from where Air Canada Flight 621 slammed into the ground, the permanent memorial with its 109 stones has finally brought her a sense of long-lost peace.

“It haunted me because I thought that houses would be built on it and nobody would know,” Genova says.

“I’m at peace now because I know it’s marked appropriately and respectfully.”

It was around 8 a.m. on Sunday, July 5, 1970, when the DC-8 en route from Montreal to Los Angeles prepared to make a routine stop at Toronto’s international airport just northwest of the city.

Just as it came in to land, co-pilot Donald Rowland mistakenly deployed the ground spoilers, which are only to be used after landing to brake the aircraft. The plane dropped.

“Sorry. Oh. Sorry, Pete,” Rowland, 39, was recorded as saying.

The captain, Peter Hamilton, 49, applied full power, but the plane bounced sickeningly hard on the runway, breaking off one of the engines. Unaware of the extent of the damage, Hamilton managed to get the “California Galaxy” airborne again so he could attempt another landing.

“Oh, we’ll go around. I think we’re all right,” Hamilton said.

As the plane climbed, leaking fuel ignited. A series of explosions destroyed the right wing. The DC-8, trailing fire and smoke, nose-dived into the field from about 1,000 metres up about 10 kilometres from the airport.

“Oh, gosh!” were Rowland’s last recorded words.

All 100 passengers and nine crew were killed.

Among the passengers were Canadians — including a mom and her two girls — American vacationers, and others from overseas.

About 50 metres away, the impact shattered the windows of a farmhouse where the Burgsma family of 11 was asleep.

“Everything was silent except for a hissing sound coming out of that big hole,” Sytze Burgsma said at the time.

A would-be rescuer sent by helicopter would later say they initially missed the crash site because, from the air, they thought it was a garbage dump.

Genova, who was then 13, remembers hearing explosions and the “horrific bang” as the plane hit the ground. She remembers her mom screaming for her to get out of bed. She remembers the smell of fuel wafting across the fields.

And she remembers the radio broadcast announcing the death toll.

“There was nothing to do. I felt hopeless and helpless that day.”

It took until 2000 before Genova finally brought herself to visit the actual site, and another five years before newspaper stories about its neglect prompted her and others to begin agitating for the memorial site.

In 2008, as farmers sold their land and the surrounding area developed rapidly in what is now Brampton, the idea of constructing a permanent memorial finally took shape.

Diarmuid Horgan, president of Candevcon, who has acted as the developers’ co-ordinator for the memorial site, said he was a little surprised by how few Canadians are aware of the disaster, even if it did happen so many years ago.

“It didn’t seem to register in the same way as things happen today,” Horgan said.

“The dedication ceremony will now hopefully provide some closure to the relatives.”

The site, formally designated as a cemetery, has plaques with the names of each of the victims. The 109 stones are grouped randomly. It’s peaceful.

“This garden, to me, is appropriate where it is,” Genova says.

“We finally encompassed our history.”

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Horrific Air Canada crash gets permanent memorial site after 43 years

  1. My family and I are incredibly overwhelmed with gratitude to the land developer for building this absolutely beautiful Memorial Garden, in memory of the victims of that terrible plane crash.

    It’s been 43 years since Air Canada flight 621 crashed, killing all 109 people on board. My mother and two younger sisters were on that flight. My mother was 39 – my sisters were 8 and 11.

    I was 13 years old and my dad was 44.

    The cause of the plane crash was pilot error.

    For me and my dad, life as we had known it was over. My mother and sisters were gone. We were no longer a family.

    What made things even more difficult for me and my dad, was the way in which this tragedy was dealt with back in the 70’s.

    The families of the victims of this plane crash did not have to the opportunity to meet and support each other. That would have helped so much. Instead, it felt to me as if my dad and I were the only ones dealt this life-long sentence of grief over the tragic loss of our family.

    The people around us really had no idea what we were dealing with, nor could they even begin to understand our anguish over this unspeakable loss.

    There was no professional help available to us. Back then, no one knew how to handle the subject of death and grief, and they thought it was best to never talk
    about it. They wanted to protect us and spare us from more pain. The myth back then was that if we don’t talk about it, we can live beyond it. In fact, everybody seemed to have taken a vow of silence.

    I wanted so badly to talk about my mother and sisters, to hear stories about them, to keep their memory alive. But that just wasn’t the way it was back then. We
    didn’t talk about the plane crash, or about my mother and sisters, and we were overwhelmed, frightened, haunted with terror . . . and alone. Very alone.

    Pictures of them were put away, all of their personal items were cleared out of our house, and we were expected to move forward with our lives, as if nothing had happened.

    We were forced to carry on for days, months, and even years, with the impact and effects of such profound loss, that never went away.

    What I remember so vividly was feeling as if we had quickly become yesterday’s news. I felt as if this plane crash and my shattered life, were long forgotten, as people moved forward with their own lives, never mentioning the crash, the victims, or the families that were left to somehow pick up the pieces. It was
    expected that somehow, we picked ourselves up and lived again.

    Nowadays, fortunately, tragedies are dealt with much more effectively and compassionately, and there’s an outpouring of support for the families of the victims.

    It is only in recent years, that I have come to realize just how many people were impacted by this terrible tragedy.

    Prior to my knowledge of or involvement in the planning of the Memorial Garden, I was told that Air Canada blatantly refused to help with the clean-up of the debris and bones still evident at the crash site. Furthermore, they declined any interest or involvement
    in the Memorial Garden at the actual crash site, the actual burial site. This is disappointingly consistent with Air Canada’s historical approach to this tragedy – indifferent, uncaring, unresponsive, insensitive, cold and heartless. Keeping in character, and having done only what they were legally required to do, they have stayed away. Need they be reminded that 109 people died because of their pilot error? Our lives were never the same. The tragedy has affected the children and grandchildren of the victims.

    The effects of this tragedy continue on and on . . .

  2. So sorry for your loss Lynda – and the burden that you carried so long by yourself. I hope the Memorial Garden brings you some measure of peace. Very disappointed to hear how Air Canada has handled this.

  3. For many victims, flight 621 is a doubly forgotten tragedy. A majority of the victims were from Montréal but the event has all but vanished from our collective memory here in Québec. Most people remember the Ste-Thérèse crash in 1963 but flight 621 is never known and everybody is surprised to hear that so many of our fellow citizens died in the crash and then died again in Québec’s collective memory. In 2010, when finally some people of honour announced the construction of a memorial, my wife, Lucie Raymond, daughter of Martial and her daughter were the only ones from French speaking Québec, with Québec’s media totally absent. And it was not for lack of trying: calls made to La Presse, Le Journal de Montréal and numerous other media remained unanswered. Fortunately, Le journal de Montréal took notice this year and offered a great coverage for the memorial’s inauguration ceremony, resulting in the participation of more than ten relatives of the crash victims. I could write all day about this tragedy and its unfortunate absence in our history: like the DC-8 itself, many of the victims were obliterated. I understand it’s not the place to do so but I can’t close this comment without mentioning the unacceptable attitude of Air Canada in all of this. Unacceptable then, unacceptable now. They did ALL they could to prevent victims’ relative from going to the crash site, they allowed the site to be left in a scandalous state, filled with debris and YES, with human remains. As late as 2007, thirty seven years after the tragedy, my wife and I discovered so many plane parts in the field that we wouldn’t have had the space in our RV to collect them all. There even was a complete SEAT! We found numerous plastic and aluminum parts, a seats ID tag, etc. Air Canada NEVER participated in any event to commemorate the victims and now, they even refuse to give a plane ticket to a 92 years old lady and her daughter and allow them to participate. An Air Canada spokeswoman even used the term “Incident” when referring to what is a tragedy, the second worst Canadian airline tragedy in history.
    My wife and I will participate in the July 7th ceremony, with the feeling of having done all we could to stir up Québec’s media and with the satisfaction of having somehow succeeded, thank to the Journal de Montréal. Many thanks also to the city of Brampton and Mr. Diarmuid Horgan who made it all possible.