Priest prays at Halifax plane crash site one year later, seeking closure

A year ago, an Air Canada plane's engine severed power cords as it came to a landing in gusty winds and snow just after midnight

Crew members work on the Airbus A320 that slid off a runway at the end of Air Canada Flight 624 at Halifax Stanfield Airport in Enfield, Nova Scotia, March 29, 2015. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Crew members work on the Airbus A320 that slid off a runway at the end of Air Canada Flight 624 at Halifax Stanfield Airport in Enfield, Nova Scotia, March 29, 2015. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

HALIFAX – For Trevor and Jennifer Lightfoot, the stark memories of an Air Canada crash landing one year ago leaves both unanswered safety questions and lingering trauma — both physical and mental.

Trevor, a 49-year-old Anglican priest, and Jennifer, a 37-year-old emergency nurse, spent part of their day on the anniversary of the March 29, 2015 incident visiting a site overlooking the scene where the Airbus slid off runway 5 at the Halifax airport.

The Halifax-area priest says he spent some time in prayer, giving thanks for his survival and ability to continue parenting his three young children.

He viewed the visit as a step towards recovering from traumatic memories of a flight that slammed into the ground and skidded to a stop.

“I needed to gain some closure with it. I still have quite a bit of anxiety,” he said. “It’s one small part of the formula to go through to heal.”

According to the Transportation Safety Board, the plane’s engines severed power cords as it approached in gusty winds and snow just after midnight. The aircraft tore through landing antenna, hit the ground 70 metres before the runway threshold, bounced and slid before coming to rest a half kilometre later.

Photos show the cabin floor of the Airbus punctured by “aircraft structure,” and an engine lying on the runway nearby.

Lightfoot said he now experiences bouts of anxiety and heightened fear, along with the difficulties in concentration that a mild concussion can create.

He says the past year has been a trying time for his family, as Jennifer has been on long-term disability due to a brain injury incurred during the crash.

Writing letters, researching sermons, and giving full attention in the pastoral care of parishioners can be draining as you go through recovery. “I come out feeling much more exhausted,” he said.

Flight 624 from Toronto had 133 passengers and five crew members on board, and the Transportation Safety Board says 25 people sustained physical injuries and were taken to local hospitals.

The safety board has noted the runway’s approach system only provided pilots with horizontal guidance to align the aircraft for landing. Some systems also have a vertical guide.

Lightfoot said he would like to know more about why that runway didn’t have the more advanced system. “For me it’s one thing that I think comes out of it,” he said.

Ron Singer, a spokesman for Nav Canada, said the federal agency has no comment due to the lawsuit on whether a more advanced system has been installed. The Halifax International Airport Authority also said it has no comment due to legal actions.

Air Canada also declined all comment.

The priest said the airport needs to address why passengers had to wait on the tarmac in winter weather for over 45 minutes.

“It was a poor response time … and there could definitely be measures put in place,” he said. “You’re cold and you’re freezing. … You’re right in the thick of seeing everything going on with the plane and the smell of jet fuel is all around you.”

The airport has noted in the past that a power outage was caused when the aircraft severed power transmission lines during its landing.

However, Ray Wagner, the Halifax lawyer working on a class action lawsuit, said the question remains as to what kind of a backup the airport had in place in the event of a power loss.

He said about 56 people have expressed interest in his firm’s class action to date. A law firm in Truro has also started legal actions on behalf of some passengers.

Lightfoot said he participated in the lawsuit because it’s the only method to recover the lost income for his family, and he does not know how much longer Jennifer will be off work.

Meanwhile, he has found himself feeling surprised and daunted by the pace of his own recovery, despite having experience as a priest at helping others cope with psychological trauma.

“I never thought it would be this difficult. … I know some of the steps one should take to deal with psychological trauma, but physicians cannot always heal themselves,” he said.