Fifteen Thousand Pieces: A Medical Examiner’s Journey through disaster

fifteen thousand pieces by Gina Leola Woolsey

Fifteen Thousand Pieces delves into the struggles faced by the incredible people who provided support in the aftermath of the September 1998 crash of Swissair Flight 111. The book focuses on the life and career of Dr. John Butt, the Nova Scotia medical examiner overseeing the recovery and identification of the 229 individuals who perished in the tragedy. Following two timelines—from John’s teen years within his tense family home, and the investigation after the crash—the story unfolds with unflinching detail.

I expected this book to be a difficult read, but was surprised by its honesty, humility, and the compassion I felt for John’s personal struggles.

I try to find personal perspective for non-fiction by reflecting on my own life. The crash happened on September 2, 1998, when I started high school at age 14. I did not know anything about Swissair 111 at the time, and after reading Fifteen Thousand Pieces, I’m surprised that I hadn’t. There are so many people involved in this story—the fishermen who volunteered to help recover bodies, relatives of the deceased, religious attendants trying to ensure faith-based treatment of remains, construction workers erecting temporary structures, RCMP, government workers—and John is at the heart of it all.

Likes / Dislilkes

Woolsey’s writing is concise without being cold. The entire novel is both informative and considerate. Most details about the crash are told factually, and I feel this allows the reader to digest the details and formulate their own emotional response.

The pilot and copilot are audibly stressed while attempting to turn, descend, and dump their fuel load with limited power.

“Swissair one eleven heavy is declaring emergency.”

“Swissair one eleven, just a couple of miles. I’ll be right with you,” control responds.

“And we are declaring emergency now Swissair one eleven…” These are the last words to Halifax Control at 10:25 p.m., approximately eleven minutes after the first distress call. The recorded altitude of the vessel is 9700 feet, just shy of 3000 metres.

At 10:31 p.m., after six minutes of radio silence, Swissair 111 slams into the water, nose first and nearly upside down, at approximately 550 kilometres per hour.

At times, Woolsey’s reflective narration about the crash is evocative and poetic, but no less tragic in recounting the magnitude of the task set before John.

Matter is morphed by its environment, but never lost. When air and spark cause wood to burn, energy is released as hot gas. But the wood is irrevocably changed. It becomes smoke and ash. Weight and velocity meet a watery wall of stillness and the identities of 229 people crash into one another, breaking apart and coming together, losing themselves in an explosion with the sea. Bringing them back to whole is as impossible as turning ash and smoke into wood.

The flashbacks to John’s earlier life are a sympathetic account of a person struggling with anxiety, acceptance, purpose, and sexuality, during a period of time when gender and societal roles were iron-clad expectations imposed on all. I related to John because I’ve had similar difficulties with mental health and conforming to societal norms. Self acceptance is a journey we’re all on, but not one we’re innately aware of. John himself didn’t realize the true gravity of his inner turmoil warring with familial, professional, and societal expectations, until they were impossible to ignore.

Three weeks passed with no relief. The internal buzzing plagued him whenever he didn’t get enough rest. He slid out of bed one morning to get ready for work. Something felt wrong. He left Barb asleep in the bed and went to shave. In the bathroom, staring at himself in the mirror, he had a sense of duality. He felt outside of himself, as if he were looking at himself as another, separate person. The buzzing had increased to a roar.

While I have no criticisms about how the details of the crash are divulged, the first body recovered is that of a small child. This scene happens fairly early, and even though I love true crime, horror, and pathology, I cannot handle when children are harmed. I had to put the book down for almost a week after that part because it affected me very heavily.

Too Much / Not Enough

Death makes us all uncomfortable, despite its unavoidable nature.

Pathology (body parts, recovery, identification, etc.) is explored in this book, but I would have liked to have read more about the investigative process. There are a couple pages describing an accidental cremation, mention of dental records, and a few times where the state of the recovered remains is touched on. But the majority of the present timeline focuses more on political and religious issues with identifying and releasing victims remains than the forensic aspects of the investigation.

John’s education played a big part in his ability to restructure and reform the pathology process in Alberta, and I found that absolutely fascinating! I would have loved to read more detail about that.

Rating Recommendation

I went into this expecting a journalistic, or documentary-style narrative. Cold hard facts, delivered without fluff or embellishment. I did not expect to identify so closely with John. His long road to self-discovery mirrors that of so many people I know, as well as my own.

Fifteen Thousand Pieces is an incredible read. Between the near-historic information about the development of medical examiner processes in Alberta, the details of the Swissair Flight 111 plane crash, and everything shared about John’s life, it’s amazing that this book is only 224 pages.

I did struggle reading it at times, due to my own personal triggers (child death and homophobia), but I do not regret reading it, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Rating: 5 out of 5.