When Disaster Strikes

People look out onto a Peggy’s Cove sunset. (Alyssa Mosher/AQ)

Shaken, he told me he didn’t know what to do. Neither did I. He felt helpless and sad. I felt nothing.

For many people, Peggy’s Cove is the most iconic tourist attraction in Nova Scotia: the postcards, restaurant, crashing waves and lighthouse. For Dad and me, it has always been a getaway.

The sun sets in a particular fashion on the bay. On a clear night, it’s like a burning medallion, slipping down below the edge of the horizon. You can go there and think about nothing or everything. Peggy’s Cove is whatever you want it to be.

The area’s mostly quiet at night, though some tourists still run around its rocks. Signs warn them to stay off the black ones, the ones splashed by cool Atlantic waves, but it’s like a magnetic pull, a challenge, to see how close you can get to the edge, forgetting its potential danger.

The crash of Swiss Air Flight 111, 11.3 kilometres off the coast of Canada’s Ocean Playground moved my dad more than my family expected. At nine, I had never seen his sad emotions. I didn’t really think he had them. But when 229 people are killed after a plane crash rumbles your home 10 minutes away, you’re bound to feel something.

***

They say the unexpected is just around the corner and your destiny is closer than you think. I was 16 when I got my surprise.

We were doing a group project in English class and I got stuck with the “other” category. For whatever reason, I chose to do a video.

Our topic was “hope and loss” and I decided to draw on the disasters that affected people my age – Hurricane Katrina, 9/11 and Swiss Air Flight 111. I interviewed peers, directed shots and chose music and archival photos. I remember spending hours on Windows Movie Maker making sure the shots lined up with the music, the music with the words on the screen, the words with people’s interviews. And before I knew it, I had produced an eight-minute documentary. Talk about surprise.

After receiving such positive feedback, all I could think was, “What am I doing?”

There was something totally fascinating about disasters and why they happen. I wanted to know the science behind these unexpected tragedies that so often included death. And what intrigued me most was what it all meant for the people involved – or those not-so-involved, like the case of my dad and Swiss Air Flight 111. I wanted to hear those stories behind the initial shocking news.

By Grade 11, I was confused about my future. I thought I always wanted to be a political analyst (mega cool, I know), but then started toying with the idea of psychoneuroimmunology, the study of the brain (my sister was studying it at Acadia and I thought she was the greatest).

But that small little project in September of my Grade 11 advanced English class suddenly made everything clear: journalism was the abyss I was about to drop into.

***

“Are you going to take this one, Alyssa?”

“You should probably do something about it.”

“Someone needs to phone his friends.”

“I can do it if you don’t think you’ll have time.”

“Okay,” I replied to our business editor at the time, Lily Boisson.

Student athlete Andrew Bartlett had passed away after a rookie party and as news editor of The Aquinian at the time, I froze.

This was a disaster, right? That same “story behind the story” was staring me right in the face and it was mine if I wanted it. But all I could do was ignore my responsibilities, shy away and cower in the corner.

Later that year, two very different cataclysms affected people at St. Thomas University.

One former student told us about the fear she had for her immediate family who lived in Japan after the earthquake. She was glued to the news, always waiting to hear more about the worst-case scenario. But then she talked about the hope she found in survivors of the disaster.

“We’ll rebuild Japan this time again,” an older man said on the TV as he climbed out of the wreckage.

Later that year I spoke with another former student. She was working at a news station in Abu Dhabi and the government had cancelled all national and international news out of that channel. She knew it had something to do with the protests that originated in Tunisia and Egypt.

“I used to tell my professors…that I was really, really scared of going back home and practising…our [Middle Eastern] journalism,” she told me.

Listening to these stories first hand made me realize that no matter how many clips I saw on CNN or CBC, I didn’t get it. And part of me thinks I was afraid to even try.

But now all I want to do as a journalist is convey those emotions most of us can’t even fathom; all I want to do is show that I’ve overcome that fear, helping people – including myself – understand.

***

They say photography shows us what the eye can’t see. I beg to differ.

When I take pictures of Peggy’s Cove, I can only hope my shooting will capture what I see, what I feel. Whether it’s of the low-lit sun or the crash of a wave, there’s always something mysterious about those photos and what they can never show.

For some, Peggy’s Cove will always be that getaway, a tourist attraction, a nice day in the sun. But for me, it’s become much more. When I snap a photo and post it on my wall or even this story, it’s like I’m trying to capture something that’s not there anymore, this abyss, these yearnings – all of which have led me to where I am today.

Like everything else, the impact of a disaster is relative to the experiences of people around you. And if we don’t understand that relation, we’re more than a world away from something that happened only kilometres down the road.

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