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Tickets to Terror
Mother Teresa’s kind words have given comfort and hope to thousands of forsaken souls in the gutters of Calcutta. But there was no consoling Toronto. Not even the famed woman of peace could ease the grief suffered by the families of the victims of the horrendous Air India tragedy.
She tried, though, in her gentle, almost inaudible voice. It was Monday, 24 June. The Nobel Laureate was speaking in Toronto, her kind face etched with lines of age, the hands she held in front of her pitifully thin as she talked to the city which had suffered the biggest losses. Forgive, said the angel of mercy. Don’t hold bitterness in your heart. But even the woman of God knew that day that a Jumbo jet doesn’t just fall out of the sky like a stone without good reason. It wasn’t an act of God – that was certain.
Her words were falling on the ears of people who were in a daze. What could you say to Yogesh Paliwal about his son Mukul? What could you say to Perviz Madon about why Sam hadn’t reached Bombay for his birthday? Or to Mehnga Singh in Vancouver about why fate had snatched away his daughter Sukhwinder and grandchildren Parminder and Kuldip?
‘We must pray that the families will be able to forgive,’ she mother Teresa quietly. ‘They must forgive without allowing the bitterness or the anger to destroy the peace in their hearts.’
Mother Teresa sensed that there would be a need for forgiveness. The media was already blaring around the world that sabotage was the likely cause of the Air India disaster. But each newspaper had a different story. Some said the bombs came from Toronto. Others said Vancouver. But the pundits all agreed that it was too much of a coincidence that the Narita blast and the Kanishka disaster had occurred within an hour of each other and that both planes involved had originated from Canadian soil.
But no matter how it had happened, explanations weren’t going to help Yogesh Paliwal and Perviz Madon. Their anguish was too much to bear. Nothing made sense.
All they wanted to know at this time was whether they would be able to have one last look at the bodies of their loved ones. A team of pathologists headed by Cork doctor Cuimin Doyle were busy performing autopsies on the 131 victims found after the crash as relatives were arriving in the city en masse.
But in Cork, confusion reigned. The quiet seaside resort had been turned into a morgue and was besieged by crying relatives of the victims. Many of the families had been stranded in London, with Air India’s offer to fly them to Cork now in utter disarray. The airline couldn’t handle the logistics of such a tragedy. And even after the relatives arrived, many found that the bodies of their loved ones would not be released yet. All they could see were photographs for the moment.
The process of identification was slow and painful. A piece of familiar clothing, a document in a pocket, a driver’s license would give a clue. But the bodies were so brutally disfigured that mothers couldn’t tell if they were looking at their own children. And relatives who did find the bodies of their loved ones were the lucky ones. Many did not, far more than half of the victims were still unaccounted for.
Perviz Madon finally recognized the body of her husband who had promised to be with her for his birthday. Sam had to complete his journey. She would take his body to Bombay. Yogesh Paliwal stood at the seaside at Cork, staring at the horizon. He would not see the son who had kissed his feet and said goodbye. Shock and grief among the relatives had now turned to horror and anger. Who would blow innocent people out of the sky? Who could be so devious? So heartless?
Speculation does not solve the mystery of such a massive tragedy. Methodical and painstaking work had to be organized. Dozens of investigators had already begun to sift through tons of wreckage found floating around the coast of Ireland and brought ashore by rescue ships. More was washing ashore on the western coasts of Wales, Ireland and England, carried by strong ocean currents. A Canadian ship brought some of the wreckage to Halifax, Nova Scotia, while a Spanish ship took what it found to Madrid. On Monday, 24 June, a low-level search continued off the coast of Ireland involving merchant ships, Irish Navy vessels and US Air Force Chinook helicopters.
In India, on 23 June, H. S. Khola, the 43-year-old Director of Air Safety in the office of the chief of civil aviation had already been given his orders to head the probe of the worst disaster ever to affect an Indian commercial jetliner. Khola faced a massive task. His only choice was to split the various investigators from the countries involved into small study groups, each with a specific area of investigation amongst the various aspects of the doomed flight.
Medical groups with experts like Dr. Ian Hill, an aviation pathologist, would examine the bodies to try to determine the cause of the accident. Other experts, like C. D. Kohle, director of airworthiness for India’s aviation authority, would team up with members of the Canadian Aviation Safety Board and the US National Transportation Safety Board to examine wreckage and eventually the Cockpit Voice recorder and the Digital Flight Data Recorder, the so-called black boxes which had yet to be recovered. The director of the Indian Central Bureau of Investigations, C. M. Sharma, was ordered to join the probe to look into the criminal aspects of the case and liaise with the RCMP and the Japanese police.
In Toronto, on Sunday, the RCMP had begun collecting duty rosters of anybody and everybody who had anything to do with the Air India flight while it was on the ground and when it departed. The list was endless. It included passenger agents from Air Canada who handled check-in; workers from an agency which handled the ground-transportation of baggage; staff from Burns Security who X-rayed and sniffed the bags with bomb detectors; catering staff and workers at the hotels where the crew stayed while in Toronto. Also to be interviewed were Air India agents D. Yodh, John D’Souza and Janul Abid. And the people who had associated with the flight crew while they were in Toronto, including Bhinder’s friend Jagdev Singh Nijjar and the mysterious Sharma. The first interviews began in Toronto on Sunday.
Meanwhile, an ominous picture was already emerging in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond as the RCMP continued to glean clues from interviews with CP Air clerks. Although they had yet to obtain the full story of the two men who had checked in their bags but had not boarded their flights at Vancouver Airport, they had received a briefing from CP Air security about the incident. The first interview with Martine Donahue had provided an important clue.
The situation as the Mounties now understood it was that two men had checked in their bags for flights leaving out of Vancouver. Both of these CP Air flights connected with Air India flights and the men, both using the name Singh, had both failed to board their flights. Donahue’s revelations provided the vital clue that the two men’s tickets had been booked together by a single caller.
But Donahue had never seen the mystery-caller. A CP Air ticket clerk, Gerald Duncan, provided the first face the Mounties could paste into their file. Never in his wildest nightmares had the veteran CP Air employee dreamed he’d be involved in a case of international intrigue. But now the Mounties were grilling him about a Sikh whose beard had fascinated him. They would even put him through hypnosis to probe the depths of his mind about the man who had picked up two tickets to terror.
Most passengers pre-book their flights. They come up to Duncan at the counter, identify themselves, and pay the fare. The computer prints out the ticket and he wishes them a nice journey. That’s all there is to it, usually. But on Thursday, 20 June, 1985, things didn’t work out that way.
Duncan was sitting behind a horseshoe shaped ticket desk in CP Air’s ticket office on Burrard and Georgia, the busiest corner in the city’s business district. Selling tickets wasn’t Duncan’s regular job. His usual workstation was the reservations office in the steel-and-glass Bental Centre where Donahue worked on reservations. But today he was substituting for an agent who was on leave.
He was doing the 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. shift when a tall, well-built man wearing a turban and a beard walked into the office and headed for Duncan’s position. The man said he was there to pick up two tickets which had been booked earlier on the telephone. He now wanted to change the names in which the tickets had been booked. The booking for Mohinderbell Singh to Tokyo and Bangkok was now to be in the name of L. Singh; and that previously made for Jaswand Singh to Toronto and then New Delhi via Air India Flight 182 was changed the name of M. Singh. The man fished out a wad of money from his pocket. All cash. And with it was a piece of paper on which he had jotted down flight numbers and routes. The man said very little, but as Duncan worked on the tickets, he kept looking at the man’s beard. It was neatly tucked under a black cloth net, which is worn to keep the uncut beard in shape.
There was nothing unusual about the sale, nor about the man’s behavior. Duncan would start thinking later about the fact that a man had paid cash for two tickets for passengers heading in different directions. While the man was there, though, Duncan got the distinct impression that the turbaned customer was a travel agent.
When RCMP officer Al Armstrong turned up to interview the CP Air Agent, he carried copies of the two tickets Duncan had sold. The tickets told a remarkable story. The serial numbers on the two tickets were consecutive, meaning they had been printed out by the computer one after the other. The computer had also recorded that M. Singh’s ticket was issued on 20 June at CP Air’s downtown office in Vancouver with a confirmed status for CP Flight 60 to Toronto, departing Vancouver at ‘RQ’ status, meaning wait-listed, for Air India Flight 181-182 from Toronto to Montreal departing 6:35 p.m. EDT (the Air India flight was designated Flight 182 when it departed from Montreal). M. Singh’s ticket showed he was also wait-listed for the flight out of Montreal departing at 8:20 p.m. EDT. The total paid for the ticket was $1,697 in cash. The ticket number was 3522428.
L. Singh’s computer-printed ticket number was 3522427. He had confirmed reservations for CP Flight 003 to Tokyo, departing Vancouver at 1;15 p.m. local time. His ticket showed that he was to depart Tokyo at 5:05 Tokyo time for Bangkok with Air India Flight 301. The payment, also in cash, for his ticket was $1,308.
Duncan, who has suffered anxiety and fear since the incident, described in detail to Constable Armstrong what had happened the day he sold the tickets, just two days before L. Singh and M. Singh were to fly. It was one of several interviews that he did for investigators over a few days’ time.
‘Could you please view the photocopies of airline tickets issued to L. and M. Singh on 20 June 1985 by yourself at the CP Air ticket office and tell me what you recall about these transactions?’ asked Armstrong.
‘I was working from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on 20 June 1985,’ Duncan recalled. ‘We can be sure it was early afternoon because it was only two hour till noon and I’m sure it was not right off the bat (that the man came into his office). As far as I am concerned it was not one of the passengers that picked up the tickets. I got that impression because I thought he was an agent.
‘I suppose I thought, I thought that because the tickets were going both ways,’ Duncan added. ‘He kept referring to the people traveling as “they”, so I presumed the tickets were for two other people.
‘The man was as tall or taller than I am and I’m 5’111/2″. He was in by himself – I’d describe him as 210-220 pounds, wearing a light gold-yellow or mustard color turban. He spoke good English. He didn’t have to repeat anything. Mind you, there is always a trace of an accent. He wore more casual Canadian-type clothes, nothing radical or no Nehru-type suit.’
“Do you recall any particulars on the dress?’ asked the Mountie.
‘No, it was just ordinary,’
‘Do you recall anything else distinctive about his appearance, such as jewelry, scars, birthmarks?’
‘No – he was not an ancient man. He wasn’t gray – I’d say late 30s.’
‘Do you recall him associating with anyone else in your office – employees or customers?’ Armstrong probed.
‘No – because he kept referring to the people who were destined to use the tickets as “they”. I was sure he was by himself, usually if there was more than one, they’d both be at the counter.’
‘Do you recall how he produced the money – from a wallet or in a roll, pre-counted?’
‘When I got it, I think it was in a wad, folded in half. He may have known how much it was going to cost, because he had this information written on a piece of paper. He knew the flight numbers and routes,’ Duncan replied.
‘Did he keep that piece of paper?’
‘How long did the transaction take?’
‘It must have been 10 to 15 minutes.’
‘Do you recall why the first ticket was marked void?’ asked Armstrong, referring to the mark put after the final destination, Bangkok, on L. Singh’s ticket.
‘See, the booking was already on the machine – I think. I don’t remember making it (the booking). That would mean someone phoned it in. See, the first ticket was booked “open return”. I’m sure he knew what he wanted. It seems to me they were planning to come back, but they were planning on staying more than a year or they didn’t know when they were returning so he changed it to a one-way ticket.’
‘Was he concerned about the method in which the original flight had been booked?’
‘Since the bookings were made, the people didn’t know when they were coming back and that was it,’ said Duncan about his conversation with the bearded man on the change from a return ticket to a one-way ticket. ‘The guy was quite well-versed.’
‘Did he comment about the short notice for booking or buying the tickets and the wait-list from Toronto?’
‘No – probably because he looked to me like he knew what he was doing. He looked like an agent to me. There was never any discussion about alternative bookings.’
Do you recall if he introduced himself when he approached your counter or identified himself at all?’ Armstrong asked.
‘No, he did not,’ Duncan responded. ‘Again, because he didn’t do something like that, I presumed he was not one of the people traveling.’ The ticket agent added that he didn’t recall seeing any ride waiting for the man outside the office.
Duncan then described the turbaned man in great detail, as Armstrong continued to tape the conversation.
‘This guy had a reasonably full face. Most of them look skinny and this guy was a big man. He seemed to have more meat on him than most of them do. Because I see so many I can’t be positive about the description. He may have hair from his beard braided beneath his chin – it looked like cloth.’
‘Could we just do a complete description, then?’
‘Six feet, 210 to 220 pounds, full face, mustard turban, beard – possibly braided, casual western type clothes, spoke good English, no distinctive jewelry, carried list of flights, flight numbers and times and spoke as if tickets were for someone else. I’d say he was in his late 30’s. Polite and maybe even soft spoken.’
The voice sounded like it was coming from a distant planet. It was soft but authoritative. It was gently nudging him into sleep. Probing. Taking him back in time. Back to the morning of 20 June. Driving to work, early morning coffee. Back in time, 16 July, 15 July …22 June and then, slowly, to 20 June.
‘And now I’d like you to begin orientating back in time,’ the voice said. ‘Just let your subconscious do this for you. Just as it has already slowed down your heartbeat. It has already lowered your blood pressure.’
Gerry Duncan was being taken back to the time when he came face to face with the turbaned man who bought two tickets from him. He was listening to the voice of the police hypnotist as the depths of his mind were being probed.
‘It’s almost like the development of a Polaroid,’ said the hypnotist. ‘When you take a Polaroid picture things don’t seem too clear. Just say things that come to your mind as that gentleman approached you at the ticket counter. What do you hear? What do you see? What do you feel?’
‘Nothing,’ replied Duncan.
Then, as the hypnotist probed his memory, slowly the picture appeared in Duncan’s mind. Slowly, very slowly. Just like a Polaroid.
‘The beard …neat … well trimmed,’ he said. ‘Thin … parted …and a mesh.’
‘Yes, the color of the beard?’ the hypnotist prompted.
‘It was dark…maybe some gray, salt and pepper,’ the CP Air agent recalled.
‘Does he have a mustache?’
‘I think so. It doesn’t meet the beard…It was a full face…rough skin …full lips … clean turban, it was mustard.’
Then slowly, painfully, Duncan remembered the shirt, a gray shirt and a beige windbreaker. He also remembered a diamond ring. He remembered that the man didn’t have enough cash on him so he changed the two-way ticket to Bangkok for L. Singh to one-way.
‘Ah… the money …He went into his right pocket. He got the money from the right pocket. Hundreds and fifties …folded.’ Duncan remembered again that the man had the flight numbers on a piece of pepper. ‘It was just handwritten. It wasn’t typed. It was just on a plain white paper…’
The ticket clerk had thought he might as well kill two birds with one stone if he was going to be hypnotized. He wanted to stop smoking. So the hypnotist gave him suggestions about that too. And later he drew a composite drawing for the police.
At the time the tickets were picked up, Duncan had no idea or even a vague feeling about what was to happen. But like other CP workers, he too had begun to worry after hearing the news of the disaster. From co-workers he’d heard that airport passenger agent Jeannie Adams had been involved in a fuss over baggage with an East Indian male. Out of curiosity, he called Adams to talk about what now sounded to him like an unusual ticket pickup. He also wondered if the man who had picked up the tickets resembled the man who had made a fuss with her about his bag.
Adams advised him not to tell the police that they had compared notes. But later she told police investigators what they had talked about anyway.
‘This has been bothering me,’ Duncan had said to Adams. ‘…The man who picked up the tickets had a turban and a beard.’
‘Well, that’s not my guy at all, ’cause I mean I know for sure mine didn’t have a turban,’ replied Adams. ‘And he didn’t have a beard.’
Relating the conversation to police, Adams added that Duncan had told her that when the man picked up the tickets he was fascinated with the man’s beard net.
‘He said he had a parting, he had this funny thing on and his hair was sticking through it, and I said, “Well, Gerry, East Indian men wear that.” You know, that little netting that comes up the side?
‘He said, “That really intrigued me … I looked at that guy’s beard and his silly little net more that I looked at his face.” And when he said that a man had picked up both the Toronto Air India tickets … it was a little strange that someone had picked up a ticket going to Delhi one way and another going the other was…’
That was unusual, thought Adams, very unusual. It was indeed. It would soon be her turn to tell her story about the ‘jerk’ who had conned her into ‘interlining’ his bag at Vancouver Airport. A deadly bag, as all the evidence now indicated.