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Now Available: Salim Jiwa’s Second Book on the Air India Disaster, Margin of Terror

Part One: The Disaster
Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Read Part Two:

The Investigation

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Chapter 1

Chapter 4

Nightmare at Narita

Montreal, 9:10 p.m.

It had been a long, long wait for the 15-year-old Mukul Paliwal. The waiting was over now. The Air India plane that was to take him to his grandmother and to the Taj Mahal had finally touched down and parked at gate 80. Just ten minutes before the flight arrived, Mukul had said goodbye to his family. In the age-old Indian tradition of showing profound respect for parents, Mukul knelt down on his knees and kissed the feet of his father and mother. Then he embraced them and kissed them. His mother wiped tears from her eyes and gave him some last minute advice. He might be old enough to go to India on his own, but he was still ‘her baby’, she said.

As Mukul and 104 other departing passengers proceeded through the security check on their way to the boarding gate, 68 arriving passengers, including Air India staffers Rajendra, Yohd and D’Souza, disembarked and were transported to the arrival terminal.

There had been a few problems, however, while the 105 passengers were waiting to board. Burns Security officers Real Gagnon and Jacelyn Cardinal had put aside a bag belonging to a passenger boarding from Montreal. They had spotted wires near the suitcase opening, and they weren’t about to take any chances, so they put aside the suspect bag. They placed it next to the X-ray machine, which unlike the one in Toronto was working fine. Then they picked out two more bags which made them uneasy. The security men informed Air India service agent Janul Abid of the suspect suitcases, but Abid asked them to leave the bags aside until D’Souza arrived from Toronto on the flight. While they waited, two diplomatic pouches were brought over from Ottawa by Mohinder Singh of the Indian High Commission. After the flight arrived, he and a ground worker proceeded to the aircraft and handed the smaller pouch, which weighed a kilogram, to flight purser Inder Thakur. The other bag, weighing nine kilos, was put with the diplomatic bags from Vancouver in a container in the forward luggage hold.

The aircraft, meanwhile, had been hooked up to a ground power cable to supply electricity because its auxiliary power unit, which supplies electricity when the engines are off, had been out of service since the aircraft left Bombay. Rajendra and three Air Canada technicians were busy performing a final check on the aircraft as CP Air catering staff loaded dinner and breakfast for the journey to London. Flight Engineer Dumasia had also come out of the plane to take a look at the fifth engine. He discovered that on of the latches was loose and asked an Air Canada technician to take care of the problem. It was soon rectified, and Dumasia, Rajendra and the three ground service men from Air Canada decided that there were no other snags.
D’Souza, meanwhile, had been informed by Abid that three suitcases had been laid aside as suspect baggage. The security man put the three bags through the X-ray machine and also used the explosive sniffer he had brought from Toronto. He decided to keep the bags in Montreal overnight. They could always be sent over on another flight if they proved to be harmless. But he and Abid made no effort to contact the passengers whose bags they had decided to keep.

Montreal, 9:50 p.m.

Mukul and fellow passengers boarding in Montreal were on their way to the waiting plane in a bus. Pretty sari-clad hostess Rima Bhasin and Sharon Lasrado, who had celebrated her 23rd birthday two days earlier in Toronto, were standing at the doorway to the Jumbo with their hands held together in front of them in the traditional Indian greeting Namaskar.

As the passengers from Montreal were seating themselves and putting away their hand baggage in the overhead compartments, a Mountie had been notified in the airport terminal that three suspect suitcases had been held back. He asked Air India representatives to come to the luggage holding area so the bags could be examined. But D’Souza was busy elsewhere.

Montreal, 10:18 p.m.

The time had come for Flight 182 to leave for its next destination. The microphone in the cockpit had just crackled and come alive with the voice of the air traffic controller. The co-pilot acknowledged.

Captain Bhinder: ‘Air India 182. Good evening.’
Control tower: ‘Air India 182, taxi to position, 06,18.’
Bhinder: ‘Taxi to position 06,18.’
Control: ‘Air India 182, airborne departure, 124.65 clear takeoff 06.’

Kanishka was off and away. Mukul was on his way to see his grandmother. But there was that Vancouver bag in the plane’s belly that nobody knew about. It lay among 539 bags of all shapes and sizes, as well as the diplomatic bags and parts from the extra engine, that were stowed in the under-belly of the 747 as it took off with 104,000 kilograms of fuel, 307 passengers and 22 crew members for the flight to London.

As the aircraft disappeared into the night sky, back in the terminal building – more than 15 minutes after the flight had left – Abid and D’Souza walked into the baggage room where RCMP Sgt. J. N. Leblanc was waiting for them. The Mountie asked them to determine the owners of the bags, but the Air India pair told him the flight had already left.

The three bags were then taken to a decompression chamber owned by the airline with the toughest security in the world, EL AL of Israel. There, dogs sniffed the bags and when they were opened later, the only unusual items found were an iron, a camera, a radio and hair dryer. Three passengers remained blissfully unaware that their luggage had aroused so much suspicion – and of the ironic fact that the cautious inspection of their harmless possessions could do nothing to protect them from the real danger that lay hidden in the hold beneath them.

The aircraft that was carrying the hopes and dreams of 329 people, Kanishka, a Boeing 747 model 237B, had been acquired by Air India on 19 June 1978 and had made its first commercial flight for the company on 7 July 1978. The plane was in its young middle age, with 23,634 hours of service completed in its seven years of operation. Its four engines were each capable of producing a roaring thrust of 48,650 pounds maximum. It was in topnotch condition, having been thoroughly serviced on 24 May, but it had had its share of problems which are considered common. The problems had been detected and dealt with promptly, however. Some examples from the plane’s service history will show the nature of these faults and the repairs that were made.

13 July 1984, Dubai, Flight 868: The aircraft returned after aborting take-off due to an instrument showing no rise in engine pressure in the No. 1 engine. Checks showed slight wetness in bleed outlets, but no external oil leaks were noticed. Minor repairs were carried out and the plane took off without further problems.

18 July 1984, Delhi, Flight 105: The right-hand side fuselage skin in line with the forward cargo door was damaged by a high lift. Temporary repairs were carried out in Delhi and then permanent structural repairs were done a the Air India base in Bombay.

12 August 1984, Rome, Flight 135: The aircraft came in with its No. 2 engine shut down by the pilots because of dropping oil pressure and oil quantity. Checks revealed a leak from a cracked line. The was welded in Rome and then replaced in Bombay.

24 October 1984, London, Flight 104: The aircraft suffered total loss of hydraulic fluid in one of the flap control mechanisms. Two of the four bolts holding the inlet pressure adapter onto the flap control module had been sheared. Repairs were carried out and the flight continued to Bombay.

14 February 1985, Delhi, Flight 164: On arrival at Delhi Airport, a flap was found with damage measuring about 18 inches in length. The aircraft had apparently hit a foreign object while in flight. The flap was replaced in Bombay.

Tonight, as Narendra put the Jumbo into a steep climb and reached the cruising altitude, he could be certain that the plane was in tip-top shape. And it was carrying more that eight hours’ worth of fuel, enough to take it to Paris in case an emergency forced it to over-fly London. The passengers settled down for their dinner and in-flight movie as Moncton air traffic control cleared the big jet to fly at an altitude of 33,000 feet. The plane’s estimated time of arrival in London was 8:33 GMT, six hours and 15 minutes after take-off from Montreal. Over Gander, Newfoundland, traffic control on the ground gave the Boeing 747 oceanic clearance at normal cruising speed. But Bhinder advised them that he needed a slower speed because of the fifth engine. Gander cleared him to head out over the ocean at a reduced speed of Mach 0.81.

Narita Airport, Near Tokyo, 23 June, 6:20 GMT

Globe-trotting Woodwards Department Store merchandise buyer John Kennedy had three hours to kill before his trip home to Vancouver. He had just flown in from Taiwan after completing a shopping spree for the Vancouver store. After going through passport control at the gleaming Narita Airport, Kennedy had wandered into the huge waiting area where a maze of duty-free shops offered tempting electronic fare. But the 40-year-old buyer had had enough of shopping. Instead, he meandered over to a series of clear glass windows, stretching 60 feet in length, which offered waiting passengers a panoramic view of the hustle and bustle of one of the busiest airports in the world.

He watched CP Air Flight 003 coming in to the gate where he was to board it later for the flight home. When you travel a lot as Kennedy does, three hours to spare at an airport like Narita isn’t an awfully long time to wait, and he was used to it. Now, as he looked out through the sparkling glass windows, he could see little forklift trucks driving up to the Canadian Pacific jet and driving away again with containers of luggage for the passenger who had just arrived from Vancouver. With Pacific head-winds not as harsh as usual, the orange and white CP Boeing 747 had made good time, coming in ten minutes ahead of schedule at 2:45 p.m. Tokyo time.
Looking down through the windows, Kennedy could see the busy little baggage trucks disappearing beneath him into the ground-floor terminal where handlers would sort out the bags and cases before passengers picked them up. Deciding at this point that he had better things to do than just watch the baggage trucks or stare into the distance at the sleepy little city of Narita, Kennedy turned away from the window.
He hadn’t taken two steps when a thundering blast shook the whole airport. The force of the explosion almost knocked him off his feet. What the hell was that? He thought, as his heart pounded. It sounded like a cement truck had come crashing through the roof of the terminal. The time was 3:20 p.m. There was a moment of stunned silence in the airport as the roar of the blast died down. Then came a second explosion, this one of human activity, of babies crying, women screaming and men running.

All hell seemed to break loose as Kennedy stood rooted to the spot. He waited, expecting to hear another massive blast. But none came. From the ventilation grille behind him, thick acrid smoke began filtering into the lounge. This leisurely transit stop was turning into a nightmare, Kennedy thought. This was a bomb, he was certain. It had to be; nothing else could make a sound like the earth falling apart.
Amid the chaos and screams, sirens wailed from the tarmac below as Japanese police hurled themselves into action. From the windows Kennedy could see ambulances, fire trucks and police cars dashing towards the scene of the explosion on the ground level, right below where he was standing. The dismayed Canadian watched the scene on the tarmac below in awe, his mouth hanging open. The first two victims were being brought out on stretchers. Mercifully, their bodies were covered from head to toe. Obviously they were dead. Then two more were brought out, their bodies covered only in blood.  Blankets did not cover their heads. They were bloodied but still alive. The ambulances sped away, sirens wailing.

As the minutes passed the chaos began to subside. From where he was standing, Kennedy had a panoramic view of the incredibly efficient Japanese security men in action. As armored car drove in to probe the rest of the baggage that had been taken off CP 003. The bomb squad was taking no chances with the plane that had brought deadly cargo from Vancouver. Kennedy then saw the grimly humorous figure of the chief of security, shouting orders to his men; behind him an attendant was carrying a pole with a large number on to identify the man in charge. In chaotic situations, it is imperative to know just who is issuing the orders. Also on the tarmac, Japanese press officers were briefing reporters, drawing out chalkboard diagrams for the curious newsmen. Was it a bomb? Where did it come from? How many dead? How many wounded? Had anybody taken responsibility yet? The officers had few answers tight then. One thing they were sure about was that it was a bomb. And it had been brought to Narita by that orange and white Canadian Pacific Jet.

Already the Empress of Australia, as the plane was called, had become infamous. She sat on the tarmac as tourists took pictures by which to remember the terrible drama that had been played out in front of their eyes. It was all like a bad dream. Particularly bad for John Kennedy, knowing that the vehicle of death, the aircraft sitting on the tarmac, was to become Flight 004 and carry him home across the Pacific.
Down on the ground level, firemen had doused a small fire and forensic experts were busy clearing up and photographing the mess. The deadly blast had occurred just as luggage handlers were removing a bag from a transit container. It blew the men several yards away. Particles of metal and plastic, thousands of them, were scattered around as if a hurricane had hit the terminal. The bomb had made a crater in the concrete floor. Police had blocked all roads leading in and out of the airport and vehicles were being checked before leaving or entering the terminal area. A task force of three dozen policeman was formed immediately to probe the explosion.
Some distance away, Air India Flight 301 to Bangkok was being refueled when the explosion ripped through the terminal. No one knew it right then, but the bag that had blown up was to be loaded on that plane, whose destination was the supposed final destination of the missing passenger L. Singh. The aircraft – and probably many lives – had been spared.

The trip home for Kennedy was delayed while security officials went through the CP Empress with a fine-tooth comb. And as Kennedy boarded the plane, still a little apprehensive, he and the other passengers were physically searched.

It was a grim flight. Most of the way, he pondered the macabre scene at the airport and the awesome power of the explosive. What if the bomb had gone off aboard the CP plane while it was in flight? No aircraft could survive a blast like that. What if the plane had been late, just 30 minutes late? He didn’t know it then, and the captain wasn’t going to tell his nervous passengers, but another tragedy, one of massive proportions, had happened while the CP Empress was still on the ground in Tokyo.

‘There are some unfortunate things happening,’ allowed the captain over the cabin microphone. ‘But everything will be okay.’ Kennedy didn’t know it, but the captain had just made a heavily veiled reference to a nightmare that had happened thousands of miles away.