Prelude to Tragedy
Vancouver, 22 June 1985, 1:15 p.m.
The veil of cloud that had hung over Vancouver International Airport all morning was parting slowly as the crew of Canadian Pacific Airlines Flight 003 received their final clearance for take-off for the long journey across the Pacific. The weatherman had been right again. He had promised that the clouds would part in the afternoon, giving the city renowned for its rain the same warm, sunny weather it had enjoyed for the past two days. As the sun burned away the last vestiges of the clouds, the cool, gray day turned into a bright one with pleasant 20º Celsius temperatures. The massive Boeing 747 aircraft hurtled down the runway, its four engines thrusting with awesome power.
As the Jumbo soared to 30,000 feet over the sunny Pacific and turned west for the 10-hour journey to Tokyo, the 390 passengers and crew aboard relaxed. But one seat, allocated to an East Indian passenger in the Royal Canadian class, remained empty. The seat had been reserved for a man whose ticket identified him as L. Singh. The flight crew had waited for him patiently as announcements rang out in the terminal building asking Mr. Singh to report to the boarding lounge. Finally the flight had left without him.
It was odd that Mr. Singh hadn’t made the flight. He’d paid $1,300 cash for his ticket. He’d even checked in his medium-sized, gray vinyl suitcase that morning. It was stowed in the belly of the mammoth aircraft. Yet when the flight left Gate 20, the clean-shaven, slender passenger who looked like a businessman was nowhere in sight. And so the Empress of Australia roared out over the Pacific, no one aboard suspecting that she carried a deadly cargo.
Toronto, 22 June, 4:30 p.m.
Things were running like clockwork at Lester B. Pearson Airport. The focal point for many travelers connecting with Air India 182, the airport saw a steady stream of planes touch down that afternoon. Air Canada Flight 136 from Vancouver, carrying the Uppals, Sam Madon, Daljit Grewal and a host of other passengers, had touched down precisely on time. And 20 minutes earlier, CP Flight 60 had arrived from Vancouver carrying a bag whose owner had stayed behind. The bag carried a tag which identified it as being destined for New Delhi. It was to connect with the flight to India.
A long walk faced the Vancouver passengers as they came out into the main terminal building and made their way towards the Air India counter. It was from here that they would check in for their plane, which was scheduled to take off at 6:35 p.m. – a two-hour wait.
As they headed towards the check-in, carrying their flight bags, another passenger had just made the link with the ill-fated flight. Rahul Aggarwal was having the time of his life in the airport lounge with his three university pals who had come to see him off.
A 23-year-old University of Manitoba arts student, Rahul had been his usual bubbly, unhurried self when he disembarked from a noon flight out of Winnipeg. He wandered out into the terminal, looking for his three life-long friends. But Raghu Rajan, Naiyer Usmani and Shaffique Dhamarjee were waiting at the wrong gate. After a few minutes of standing around, the trio realized their mistake and made their way to the spot where Rahul, looking impressive in a jacket and tie, was waiting with outstretched arms.
‘Late again, eh!’ joked on of his friends. Rahul’s eyes were beaming and his face showing the excitement of his trip to India. But he was serious when he replied: ‘Yeah, man, I almost missed my flight in Winnipeg. Don’t tell Dad I was late again!’
Over the weekend, his stepfather Arvind had taken Rahul aside to tell him he couldn’t take his time where International flights were concerned. He had put his arm around the young man and given him a gentle reminder.
‘I know you are a very busy man, Rahul, but an international flight won’t wait for you – it’s not like your personal train or something. So be on time, please.’
Rahul was anxious to please the older man. When Rahul was only 18 months old his natural father had died, but his stepfather had given him his all. The two were more like friends than father and son. During Rahul’s visit to Thompson, Manitoba that weekend, the two men had talked for a long time. Rahul, always full of life and a young man who made friends as easily as he wore his smile, told his ‘Dad’ about his planned meetings with diplomats, scholars and government officials in India. It was the land he had left behind at the age of 14, but had never completely forgot as he shaped his new life in the country to which his family had emigrated.
Now Rahul was returning to India to write a thesis on Indo-Canadian relations as part of his final year’s work for a Master of Arts degree at University of Winnipeg.
As the four friends sat in the airport lounge sipping their drinks and talking animatedly about their past together at the university, Rahul was in a philosophical mood. He was telling his friends that his real reason for going to India was to rediscover himself – to find out where he came from. To mingle with the crowds in Bombay’s dusty streets and to breathe the air of a country that evoked pride in him.
Remembering what his father had told him about being on time for his flight, Rahul excused himself and went over to a telephone to call his home. But he didn’t let out the fact that he had almost missed his flight in Winnipeg. Instead, he marveled at the scene in the airport.
‘I almost feel like I am in India, there are so many women in saris at the airport today. I can’t wait to get there.’
As the four friends reminisced, killing the hours Rahul had to wait before boarding Air India Flight 182, the Boeing 747 that would take him on his pilgrimage was being readied by ground technicians. ‘Kanishka. Your palace in the sky’ the sign on the tail of the Indian jumbo said, and the plane was indeed fashioned after fabled Indian palaces on the inside. The jet was christened after Emperor Kanishka, who ruled a state of India in the second century. The aircraft was being prepared for a quick-turnaround flight back to India. It had arrived at Toronto airport at 2:30 p.m. after only a short refueling stop in Frankfurt. Of the passengers it brought to Canada, 68 were to continue on to Montreal with the same flight, but all passengers had to disembark for immigration and customs formalities.
On the tarmac at Gate 107, as ground personnel pumped 13,000 litres of fuel into the aircraft’s huge tanks located inside the wings, Air Canada maintenance staff cleaned the cabin. Technicians were also busy attaching a fifth engine to the port wing of the Jumbo. An Air India flight of 8 June had returned to Toronto when one of its engines failed after takeoff. The plane had borrowed an engine from Air Canada. Now Kanishka was being fitted with the non-functioning engine for the trip home.
There is nothing unusual about the carriage of an extra engine, but strict rules have to be followed over the mounting procedure for safety reasons. It wouldn’t do to drop a three-ton engine from 31,000 feet. For that reason, and because of the time needed for the series of inspections that are made to ensure safety, the process can be quite time-consuming.
Air India had informed Air Canada on 15 June that it would like the engine prepared for shipment on the 22 June flight, and foreman M. N. Patel had flown in from India to supervise the loading. The extra engine was brought in from Air Canada’s hangar and installation began the moment the flight arrived. The engine could not be carried on the wing without first having its cowlings removed and the fans and compressor rotors tied up. It would turn out to be a five-hour job.
Toronto, 5:15 p.m.
The mounting of an extra, non-functional engine to the left wing of the 747 wasn’t the only cause of delay and frustration that evening as preparations were being made for departure of the flight. Inside the terminal’s baggage transfer area, Burns International Security officers felt like kicking themselves too. A marvel of modern technology on which they relied heavily, the baggage X-ray machine, had packed up. There were hundreds of bags to be checked for the flight and the machine, with a mind of its own, was playing dead.
It wasn’t the first time it had done that to Naseem Nanji and her co-worker Jim Post. The baggage scanner had done exactly the same thing on 8 June, the second time she had used it. Today, though, the machine had worked well enough when she first began using it around 2:30 p.m. At that time Air India had just opened its counters for passengers, and the flow of bags and cases was slow at the start. Naseem had put on cartful of baggage through with no problems, after moving the machine to its location and plugging it in as she had been taught recently. She had been given a crash course on how to operate it just 21 days earlier, after being moved from her normal beat near Canada Customs.
Now the machine had quit and the flow of bags was becoming much faster as the time approached for boarding the flight. Naseem looked at the huge pile of luggage and decided it was time to call in the experts. But Air India security officer John D’Souza couldn’t fix the stubborn machine either, so D’Souza then asked Naseeem and Jim Post to use a portable bomb-sniffer. D’Souza stood around watching Post use the PD-4 sniffer, then decided that a practical demonstration was needed. He lit a match and held it near the sniffer, to show Post how it gave off a long whistle when it detected fumes.
A short time after D’Souza left, a bag being checked by Post made the sniffer beep. But the sound wasn’t like the long whistle D’Souza had obtained with the lighted match. Post tried the device again on the maroon vinyl bag, and again it beeped when he passed it around the lock on the zipper. The beeping bag was allowed to go through, however, because it didn’t produce the specified whistling sound. No one told D’Souza about the strange beep as ground crew began loading baggage into the forward and rear luggage holds of the aircraft.
Montreal, 5:30 p.m.
It wasn’t so long ago that her son Mukul had dismantled the family’s large and expensive cassette player while she took an afternoon nap, Subhashini Paliwal was thinking. Actually it had been almost eight years. But time had flown since the day the small boy had grabbed a screw driver and performed surgery on the cassette player, then appearing completely baffled as his child’s mind tried to comprehend how to put it all together again. Now the boy was almost a man. Old enough to go to India on his own to see his grandmother in Agra, the city of the famous monument to love, the Taj Mahal. He was 15.
Mukul was sitting in the back of the station wagon with his older brother Shailendra and younger sister Vandana as their father Yogesh maneuvered the car into a parking spot at Mirabel Airport. The family had driven the 100 miles from Ottawa and had arrived with hours to spare, as Air India Flight 182 was not scheduled to depart until 8:35 p.m.
But Paliwal, a research scientist, believed in not having to rush at the last minute. The decision to send Mukul to India was his compensation to the ninth-grade schoolboy for having missed a trip in 1984 when everyone else in the family had gone to India.
Mukul was mature beyond his years. He loved the ‘tabla’ and often played the drums to accompany sitarists playing complex Indian classical music. Several times he had appeared on local television show, to the delight of his audience, thrilling them with the rhythms of an art that he had first learned when he was only nine. He also loved to make little electronic gadgets and repair calculators and cassette players. The gadgets he made, such as electric pinball machines, were greatly enjoyed by his friends at school. The fluently tri-lingual student – he spoke English, French and Hindi – was taking grade 10 courses in computers while only in grade 9. Only recently he had turned a pile of junk into a model train with the help of his father, doing all the electrical work including automatic switching on double tracks and lights.
At school Mukul was a better than average student, and had only missed the trip to India the previous year because he wanted to take further courses during the summer break. So he had stayed behind then and lived with his Uncle in Ottawa. In May, Mukul had been told by his father that he could go to India this time on his own if he wished. The teenager had agreed on one condition – that he could go again with the rest of his family for the planned marriages of two more of his uncles in December 1986. His father had agreed to the condition, and so the pair had booked a flight for 22 June.
When the ticket had been purchased, Mukul told all his friends about the upcoming trip. In the last week, the boy hadn’t had much free time to spend with his family. First he was busy with exams in four subjects that he finished on Wednesday. Then for the next two days he was busy packing for the big journey. He included some presents for his grandmother, who was anxiously awaiting the arrival of the grandson she hadn’t seen for more than two years. That morning, before the family left for Montreal, Mukul had insisted on paying a visit to his uncle’s house.
At Mirabel Airport, as the family waited in the queue to check in Mukul’s baggage, Yogesh Paliwal recognized another Ottawa family also lined up for the flight to India. Paliwal went over and shook hands with Satish Seth and his wife Sadhana. The Seths were traveling with their three children, including an infant who was still in a pushchair. Mukul’s mother played with the child in the pushchair for a long time. Afterwards, Air India officials told the Paliwals that their plane would be delayed leaving Montreal. Paliwal asked anxiously why that was. ‘We had to do some repairs in Toronto,’ the official replied. The Paliwals headed out to a restaurant for some ice cream, but Mukul had never been fond of it and refused to eat. He preferred just to sit quietly through the hours of waiting and think about the short-wave radio he was leaving at home. There was a lot he would like to do with it when he got back.
Toronto, 5:30 p.m.
Rahul Agarwal and his friends had almost forgotten he had a plane to catch. Suddenly Rahul looked at his watch and decided it was time to go. But the flight was leaving from Terminal 2, and he was still in the other terminal. Rahul began running down the corridor towards the connecting tunnel. He didn’t want to be late this time. Not for the flight to India!
But the young man needn’t have worried. The flight wasn’t leaving on time. And besides, he wasn’t the only one who was late. The captain and crew of the Kanishka discovered that 59-year-old flight engineer Dara Dumasia had been left behind at the Royal York Hotel. The bus went back for the mild-mannered, quiet man when someone noticed halfway to the airport that he was missing. Dumasia, who had amassed 14,000 hours as an inflight engineer, had overslept, having missed the wake-up call for his last flight.