Friday’s much-hyped Fifth Estate documentary on the crash of Swissair Flight 111 generated much arcing and sparking about its cause but—in the end—no incendiary device, no hard evidence the tragic 1998 accident was anything but.
That said, the story raised questions that deserve better than read-the-report, cone-of-silence non-responses from the RCMP and the Transportation Safety Board.
The documentary focused on concerns—not specific allegations—by retired RCMP investigator Tom Juby. Juby claims his bosses shut down inquiries into what he believed were too-high-to-be-explained levels of magnesium in the plane’s cockpit area. He thought the magnesium suggested the crash could have been caused by an incendiary device. He wanted to pursue that as a possible criminal investigation into the murders of the 229 passengers and crew.
Although I never interviewed him, I have no doubt Juby is a dedicated professional who believes what he says.
But I also believe Larry Vance—the deputy chief TSB investigator who spent even more years investigating the crash, and whom I did interview extensively while researching a book about the tragedy—is equally dedicated, equally professional.
Vance and the TSB ultimately dismissed Juby’s concerns. They claim the heightened magnesium levels resulted from prolonged exposure to salt water, and believe an incendiary device would have caused far more damage to the cockpit. “It would be like aiming a blow-torch at your head and burning only one hair,” Vance told Canadian Press.
Which leaves us with… an interesting professional disagreement among professional investigators, goosed by tantalizing, made-for-TV tidbits about missing diamonds and the post-9/11-freighted presence of Arab royalty among the plane’s passengers.
Swiss television, which helped finance the CBC documentary, was so unpersuaded by its conclusions it refused to air it. “It’s not our task to spread speculation,” the network’s chief editor says.
My own issue is not with Juby’s clearly heartfelt complaints nor even with the CBC’s decision to broadcast a documentary filled with so much might-have-could-have-possibly speculation.
My concern is with the RCMP and the TSB, whose refusal to publicly respond to Juby’s allegations can only feed more sinister interpretations and add to the doubt and pain of those who lost loved ones in the crash.
Doesn’t anyone ever learn?
Stephen Kimber is the author of Flight 111: The Tragedy of the Swissair Crash.