For the love of Stephanie

SIX years ago, Ian Shaw had it all. A successful businessman, at the height of his career, he had luxury homes in France and Switzerland, a Rolls-Royce, an art collection, a wardrobe full of tailored suits.

Today, the Scots-born executive, brother of Sir Jack Shaw, former governor of the Bank of Scotland, waits on tables at a modest restaurant in a fishing village in Nova Scotia. He lives in a one-room apartment and buys his clothes second-hand. But he has a view of the ocean.

The stretch of water he sees every day is the same ocean which claimed the life of his 23-year-old daughter Stephanie, a passenger on SwissAir Flight 111. The plane crashed into the Atlantic in September 1998 after a fire broke out on board, killing all 229 passengers and crew. From that moment, Ian Shaw's life changed for ever.

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A documentary to be screened next week, Air Crash Investigation: Fire on Board, will tell for the first time the story of the 25 million, four-year investigation to find the truth about what happened.

On 2 September, 1998, Stephanie left New York to return to Geneva after a short trip to visit her boyfriend. She was a beautiful, confident girl, an outstanding student at Geneva University. She had planned to travel home a day earlier but waited to catch a direct flight to Geneva - SwissAir 111.

Meanwhile, at the family home in Geneva, Ian Shaw was anxious, although he didn’t know why. "It was not a premonition of anything specific, I was just nervous. I woke at 4am and again at 6am, turned on the television and saw the reports. I knew immediately that Stephanie had gone."

Flight 111 had begun without incident, but 53 minutes after take-off, the pilot reported smoke in the cockpit. When it persisted, he agreed to divert the plane to Halifax, Nova Scotia. However, less than 15 minutes after the first alarm call, all the operating systems failed. Air traffic controllers could do nothing but listen to six minutes of silence before the plane hit the ocean. The impact was felt 14 kilometers away in the fishing village of Peggy’s Cove.

The investigation pointed to the in-flight entertainment system - one of the first to allow internet access and online gambling - as the most likely source of the fire.

Though Mr Shaw praised the Canadian investigation, he does not try to disguise his anger at the SwissAir executives whom he believes dodged responsibility for the disaster when the company was declared bankrupt in 2001. He says the aviation industry as a whole has failed to learn lessons from the tragedy.

"They [the SwissAir board] took platinum parachutes to leave, and the company went bankrupt. But they purchased the entertainment system and I believe it was a spark from that system which caused the fire. The fire would not have spread if the insulating material had not been highly flammable, and that material is present on thousands of other aeroplanes and airlines.

"The inquiry made many recommendations, not one of which has become law in one of the countries involved. Because of the power of the aviation industry, very little can be done."

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Most of the time, however, Mr Shaw is past anger. Anger won’t bring Stephanie back. But the grief goes on.

The night Flight 111 crashed was the night Mr Shaw realised how many things in life he could not control. Until that moment success had flowed in his direction. Brought up in Forgandenny near Perth, then in Edinburgh, he quickly moved up the executive ladder. Just before his 60th birthday he resigned to pursue projects of his own. Then, in September of that year, Stephanie boarded the plane and his world fell apart.

"Everything collapsed. I consumed a bottle of Scotch a day. I couldn’t go near the station because I wanted to fall under a train. I couldn’t drive, I couldn't do anything. I was just hurtling through the dark."

One of the few positive memories he has of that time was on his first visit to Peggy’s Cove. He was moved by "the spoken and unspoken compassion" of everyone he met, the way that the tiny lobster-fishing communities warmed to the grief-laden strangers who arrived by the hundred on their doorstep. They understood what it was like to lose loved ones to the sea.

On a subsequent visit, on what would have been Stephanie's 24th birthday, Mr Shaw noticed that the "log cabin take-away" in the village of West Dover, near Peggy’s Cove, was for sale. The following year, he decided to leave his life and wealth in Switzerland and take over the restaurant, now Shaw’s Landing. His German wife, Gudula, with whom he had two children, Olivier, now 32, and Stephanie, decided to stay in Switzerland.

He said: "It was not a wish to be close to Stephanie, because I don’t believe in that possibility. I believe that when she and others die they take their memories with them. I am here because I wanted to do some good, in return for all the good I had received. My awareness now is there is no greater good in life than small kindness."

Loss can split couples, but he says that his decision to move to Nova Scotia saved his marriage. He and his wife remain close. "I try to go there twice a year, she comes here twice a year. We speak twice a day every day. We are very, very united, in all ways except geographically."

Indeed, he says the company of Gudula and Olivier is the only thing he misses from his old life. In place of luxury, there is a cove where the nightingales sing, there are seals in the harbour.

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And there is the view of the ocean. "The ocean is vital to me. It has been there for millennia, just doing its thing. It will remain long after our generation is over. It reminds me that we are not the centre of the universe."

• Air Crash Investigation: Fire on Board will be shown on the National Geographic Channel on Tuesday, 16 March at 10pm