Countdown to Disaster
The Atlantic, 23 June, 6:20 GMT
The horrifying Narita Airport bag bomb carried by CP 003 from Vancouver had just exploded. But thousands of miles away, at an altitude of 31,000 feet over the North Atlantic, there was no sign of trouble aboard Kanishka. Four hours had passed since the Boeing 747 lifted off from runway six at Montreal for the six hour and 30 minute flight to London.
Passengers were now watching a Hindi movie with a special bonus – a flight purser who was also a movie star present among them. It was Inder Thakur, who at 35 had already earned distinction not only as a screen star but also as an international model and fashion designer. The passengers were indeed being treated according to Air India’s promise: to make them feel as if they had already arrived in India from the moment they boarded. With pretty sari clad hostesses serving Indian food in an aircraft decorated like a palace from princely days of the British Raj and before, and an Indian actor too, they could hardly feel otherwise.
Thakur, a 13-year veteran of Air India, was today flying with his wife and child. Only the month before, the versatile purser had shown off his exclusive Indian designs at a convention of the World Modeling Association in New York. The smiling charmer had walked away with the award for the International Fashion Designer of the Year. The Magic Carpet, Air India’s magazine, carried a picture of Thakur with WMA president Ruth Tolman.
There had been four hours of uneventful flying, as they would say in pilot talk, and not an iota of turbulence. From the cockpit of the 747, the pilot could see the sun rising over the Atlantic, and way below, at 10,000 feet, cloud blanketing the sea. The weather was no problem, either on the surface of the Atlantic or at flight level of 31,000 feet where Kanishka was cutting through the air at speeds varying from 287 to 296 knots – slightly slower than normal because of limitations imposed by carrying an extra non-functioning engine. The surface temperature was 13 degrees celcius with a wind speed of about 15 knots. There was no cumulonimbus cloud or thunderstorm activity. At the height Kanishka was flying, the temperature was a chilly -47 degrees celcius with a steady westerly wind flow. Everything about the aircraft was shipshape, too; there was no sign of anything wrong mechanically.
There was nothing that Captain Narendra could complain about. Nothing to prevent the Jumbo from touching down at London’s Heathrow Airport at 8.33 GMT as scheduled. But the captain, crew and passengers of Air India Flight 182 didn’t know yet that the countdown to disaster had begun.
There was just an hour and thirty minutes to go now before the aircraft was to touch down at Heathrow. Just time enough for breakfast and the collecting of the trays before passengers readied themselves for a stopover in London. The plane was to begin final approach in about one hour and 15 minutes. Most of the passengers sat without their seat belts fastened and in the cockpit, flight purser Jamshed Dinshaw, who had continued working for the airline despite a 1978 Air India crash in the Arabian Sea that took the life of his sister, was standing with inflight supervisor Sampeth Lazar. Dinshaw, traveling with his wife Pamel, a hostess on the flight, was listening to small talk between Bhinder and Flight Engineer Dara Dumasia. The cockpit Voice Recorder was churning away in the back of the plane, keeping an ear on the conversation of the cockpit crew.
‘Dinshaw,’ called Bhinder from the co-pilot’s seat.
‘Yes, sir,’ answered the bearded purser.
‘Do me a small favor,’ said Bhinder in English.
‘Ekdam end pe, 54 seat pe,’ (at the very end of the plane, on seat 54) said Bhinder, mixing his Hindi and English. ‘A boy is sitting there. Inder Thakur knows. He just wanted to have a look in the cockpit.’
‘Where is he?’
‘Inder Thakur knows about him,’ Bhinder repeated.
‘Okay, 54 seat. Can I send him now?’
‘After about 15 to 20 minutes,’ replied the co-pilot, not knowing that he wouldn’t have that much time to do a small favor for a little boy who wanted to look at the dazzling array of instruments in the cockpit of a 747.
There was silence in the cockpit for about five minutes, then Bhinder spoke again, seemingly unhappy about all the beer the girls had brought in to take home from their weeklong layover in Toronto. There is nothing so popular as gifts of foreign beer in India.
Lazar replied, calling it a hard core problem. Captain Narendra, known as an extrovert with a remarkable wit, had remained silent so far. But now he joined in the conversation too, saying that some of the cabin crew might be carrying beer for others as well.
‘Somebody ten beers, somebody six beers,’ said Bhinder. ‘Hold, hold.’
It was time to check with Shanwick Control, a joint air traffic control centre in Ireland between Prestwick and Shannon. The time was precisely 7:06:39 when Bhinder made contact.
Bhinder: ‘Shanwick A1-182. Good morning.’
Shannon: ‘Station calling Shannon go ahead again.’
Bhinder: ‘A1-182. A1-182 is 51 N 15 W at 0705 level 310. Estimate FIR 08 W 51 N 08W at 07:35.’
Shannon: ‘182, your correct Shannon frequency is 131 15.’
Bhinder: ‘131 15, sir.’
The cockpit Voice Recorder next picked up Shannon communicating with TWA Flight 770, which was following behind Air India 182 by a distance of five miles and flying at an altitude of 35,000 feet. Trailing the TWA plane by about 20 miles was CP Air Flight Empress 282. Shannon cleared it to fly to Amsterdam at an altitude of 37,000 feet.
At 7.08 Bhnider contacted Shannon again to report his position. Shannon asked him to ‘squawk 2005.’ *
‘Right, sir, squawking 2005, 182,’ Bhinder duly replied.
With the communication with Shannon over, engineer Dara Dumasia called Bhinder. Dumasia said the flight purser wanted some 30 seals for the bar, for customs inspection purposes in London, and asked if he could call London Operations and tell them to have the seals ready for the flight’s arrival.
Dumasia: ‘Custom seals. Wo bar seal karane ke liye (seals to close the bar). For their arrival – customs. Bar…’
That was the last time anyone talked in the cockpit of Kanishka. The sound of an explosion interrupted the conversation. The time was 7:14:01. It was the end.
The massive Jumbo went into wild gyrations, breaking up in the air and hurling bodies, luggage and metal everywhere. It was all over for Uppal and her two children, for Madon and his promise to his wife, for Rahul Aggarwal, for Daljit Singh Grewal and that boy wonder Mukul Paliwal from Ottawa who was on his way to see his grandmother. And for Captain Narendra and co-pilot Bhinder. Most of the 329 passengers and crew were dead before they hit the water, having been wrenched violently out of the aircraft’s sheltered cabin and exposed to the viciously cold and oxygen-starved upper air. Their bodies were twisting around and their limbs flailing wildly as they hit the Atlantic. But some were still alive, although unconscious, when they hit the water. They drowned. It was an accident where no one stood a chance to survive.
It had been four hours and 56 minutes since the aircraft had left Montreal. The first item that had been liberated from the bottom of the ripped aft luggage compartment was a bag and portions of the fuselage skin. The bag slowly sank to the bottom of the ocean, with clothes protruding from its torn vinyl skin.
Search and Rescue, 7:14 GMT
As the remains of Kanishka, Air India Flight 182, sank to the bottom of the ocean, Shannon Air Traffic Control was still In the dark over the fate of the aircraft with which it had communicated just four minutes and ten seconds ago. There was no ‘Mayday’ call. No emergency was declared. But as Air India Flight 182 was falling out of the sky, a few milliseconds of microphone clicking sound was picked up by two alert traffic controllers in Shannon, M. Quinn and T. Lane. Just after the burst of microphone sounds, Air India 182 disappeared from Shannon radar.
Lane looked again at his radar, expecting that the missing blip would return, but nothing happened. The flickering diamond shape just wouldn’t come back on the screen. The frantic controllers called Air India 182 five times at 7:16 but there was nothing except silence.
At 7.17 Shannon contacted TWA 770, which had been flying just behind Air India but a t a higher altitude.
‘Okay, just calling to tell you there’s an Air India there with you and … he’s not talking to us at this time – would you just give him a call please?’ Quinn requested.
TWA 770: ‘Air India one eight two from TWA seven seven zero.’ There was no reply.
‘Ah, Shannon, TWA seven seventy. He won’t answer us either.’
‘We just had him ahead of you there,’ said Shannon. ‘Five miles just ahead of you there and his squawk is gone off the scope… that’s why … Can you see anything ahead of you there?…’
TWA 770: ‘Well, no, we don’t see him.’
Shannon: ‘Air India one eight two, Air India one eight two.’
TWA 770: ‘We’ve been looking and I’ve been calling him on guard’ – an emergency frequency monitored by all aircraft – ‘and he hasn’t answered and we don’t see him.’
Shannon then asked CP 282 to see if the missing aircraft was visible anywhere. But CP 282 could only see the TWA jet. Next Shannon asked TWA to descend and turn to see if it could spot Air India 182. The control centre then asked other airlines in the area to keep an eye out. But it was as if the lost plane had never existed.
7:30 GMT Just 16 minutes after A1-182 disappeared from radar and lost radio contact, Shannon informed the Irish Marine Rescue Co-ordination Centre that the Indian Jumbo en route from Montreal to London had disappeared. Shannon asked for emergency action. Ten minutes later the marine rescue service called the Valentia Coast Radio Station to alert all marine vessels to keep an eye out for any sign of wreckage, giving the last known location of Air India 182 as approximately 180 miles south-west of Cork.
7:50 GMT The Irish Naval vessel Aisling, a warship, reported to Valentia Radio that it was 54 miles from the last known location of the flight and was proceeding in that direction. The Irish Naval Service and the Irish Air Corps were then briefed about the emergency. A distress message was broadcast again for all shipping in the area.
8:04 GMT The Panama-registered vessel Laurentian Forest, owned by Federal Commerce of Montreal, reported it was 22 miles away from the distress area and would head towards it. The cargo vessel’s captain inquired if other ships were in the area, and was told about the Aisling. Marine rescue Co-ordination Centre in Shannon then alerted the rescue co-ordination centre in Plymouth, and they advised Shannon that a Nimrod rescue aircraft was being readied for departure shortly and Sea King helicopters were already on their way to the quiet seaside community of Cork for deployment.
8:29 GMT Shannon advised Valentia Radio that aircraft passing over the site were picking up an Emergency Locator Transmitter signal at location 51N 15 W and all ships in the area should be requested to report to Valentia. Three other ships in the area, Ali Baba, Kongstein and Western Arctic then reported to Valentia and offered to move to the location of the stricken airliner.
9:05 GMT The Laurentian Forest advised that it was about five miles from the site but couldn’t’ see anything. Three other ships were also steaming to the site of the SOS and four Sea King choppers were now en route.
9:13 GMT Eight minutes after its call to Valentia to say that it was unable to spot anything, the Laurentian Forest was on the air again. It had a grim report. It could see what appeared to be life rafts about two miles from its position. As the ship headed towards the area where the life rafts were, it spotted more wreckage from the downed airliner, and reported that the rafts were not inflated.
9:37 GMT As the cargo ship passed the uninflated life rafts and debris, it made another find. Three bodies could be seen floating in the cold waters of the Atlantic. The time in Vancouver was 2:37 in the morning, while in Montreal it was 5:37. Most Canadians, including the victims’ families, were still sleeping, unaware that loved ones they had said goodbye to only a few hours earlier had died. The three bodies located by the Laurentian Forest were picked up. They were naked, with limbs twisted around like rag dolls.
9:45 GMT By now, one of the largest search and rescue operations In history was underway. MRCC Shannon had decided that Cork, for operational and security reasons, would become the operational base for the search mission and Air Traffic Control at Cork airport was informed of the decision. An hour later, a prohibited zone for aircraft was established within a radius of 40 miles from the scene of the disaster. Valentia Radio then assigned specific quarters for each ship to search, with all bodies and wreckage found to be taken aboard and a report filed with Aisling, which was established as the command ship for the huge Atlantic search.
11:33 GMT As the Laurentian Forest began fishing bodies out of the water, eight Spanish travelers were headed for the search site. The deck of the Forest had by now begun to resemble a morgue, with 66 bodies, some naked, laid side by side. The sip Star Orion had by now offered to refuel any vessel needing it in the area of the search. The Aisling had also picked up more bodies by then. The count would go up to a total of 130 bodies aboard various ships by nightfall as the search wound down and the ‘Mayday’ alert was downgraded.
18:40 GMT By this time 64 bodies had already arrived at Cork airport and five pathologists were called out to Cork Regional Hospital for the autopsies. One of the items amongst the wreckage brought to Cork was a child’s Cabbage Patch doll, found floating amidst the scene of disaster and death.
Cork would not be the same for months to come. Investigators from India, the United States, Britain and Canada, as well as grim faced relatives hoping to provide a decent burial to their kin, would begin to swamp the town the next day as the search for more victims and debris continued with a steady stream of planes and helicopters landing and taking off from the airport.
When the search was finally over and the grim statistics had been totaled up, the Air India tragedy had become the fourth worst aviation disaster in history and the worst ever for Canada, as 280 of the 329 victims were Canadians. Later, history would also record it as the bloodiest terrorist act of its kind in modern times – an attack that was launched from Vancouver.
Most people in Vancouver and Montreal were still fast asleep when the first bodies for the victims of the Air India disaster were found. Radio stations were already broadcasting the news that the flight had disappeared from radar screens at Shannon and had possibly crashed in the Atlantic.
It was 5:30 a.m. when the telephone rang at the Ottawa home of Yogesh Paliwal. Was it Mukul calling from London to tell him he had arrived on the first leg of his journey? Who else, Paliwal asked himself, would call at 5:30 in the morning?
It wasn’t Mukul. The caller was a friend who had been listening to the radio. The flight on which Mukul was traveling had disappeared, Paliwal’s friend was saying. Paliwal got out of bed and woke up his wife. She began to wail at the news. Paliwal, his hands shaking, grabbed Mukul’s favorite short-wave radio and tried to tune in the British Broadcasting Corporation from London. His son’s radio brought him the news. The son who had kissed his feet in the traditional Indian way of showing respect for elders less than eight hours earlier was dead. The radio said there appeared to be no survivors.
Just about the time Paliwal was tuning in the radio in Montreal, the telephone was ringing at the Vancouver home of Air India’s Western Region manager, Jehangir Parakh. Parakh had been out till late that evening partying with friends. He was fast asleep when the telephone rang at around 2:30 a.m. Vancouver time. His wife picked up the phone. On the other end of the line was Air India sales representative Derek Menzes from Montreal.
‘Just take a message,’ said Parakh and hung up, thinking that there was a routine technical problem of some sort. He is still kicking himself and wondering why what Menzes was saying didn’t register on him tight then. But he was completely exhausted after having worked all-day and then gone to the party in the evening.
At 6:30 in the morning, Parakh’s son shook him awake.
‘Dad, something has happened to the Air India flight – it’s hit a radar station or something.’
Parakh picked up the news of what really happened to Air India flight 182 on morning television news and headed straight for his office at Air India’s downtown Vancouver headquarters on West Broadway. A telex was waiting for him there which read:
‘On behalf of Air India, I regret to have to advise you that one of our aircraft, VT-EFO Flight 182 of 22 June from Toronto and Montreal to Delhi and Bombay via London, was reported lost at sea off the coast of Ireland in the early hours of the morning.
‘The 747 aircraft lost contact at approximately 0715 GMT, 180 miles from Cork, Ireland.
‘The total number of passengers on board was 307, plus 22 crew. The latest information available is that the wreckage has been sighted and several bodies have been picked up. There are no reports of survivors as yet. The passenger list will be released once next of kin have been informed. We have further been advised that some more bodies have been sighted.
‘The last contact with the aircraft was 0710 GMT when the aircraft was cruising at 31,000 feet. Conditions at that time were reported as normal. The control tower lost contact with the aircraft at approximately 0715 GMT.
‘The commander of the aircraft was Capt. Narendra. He joined Air India in the year 1951 and has been a senior commander since 1964.’
‘God, 329 people!’ said Parakh to himself. ‘Sam Madon was on that flight – I could have been on that flight.’
Crying relatives and anxious friends began pouring into the Air India offices in Vancouver, Toronto and cities across the world. In Bombay a crowd gathered outside the Air India office near the scenic Marine Drive. Sheila Narendra, wife of the commander of the aircraft, was among those people. She knew then that her husband had died. Earlier, Air India representatives had come to her house, saying only that the flight had gone missing. Special telephone lines were set up by Air India in several major cities to relay news of the tragedy to families. A telephone call from London to Bombay told Perviz Madon that Sam wouldn’t be with her for his birthday or for Eddie’s Navjote. As Sam’s younger brother Cyrus left Vancouver for London, Perviz was making her way to England, too, from the other side of the world. Three days later, Major Sidhu was on his way to identify the battered body of his sister Sukhwinder and little Parminder. Their bodies had been fished out of the Atlantic with
129 others found floating among the debris of Kanishka.
As Sidhu boarded his flight that day, security at Vancouver airport had been beefed up dramatically, There were X-Ray machines to check baggage where there had been none previously, and a dozen policemen, some in plain clothes, mingled with the crowd. It was a grim flight for Sidhu. He hardly said a word during the flight. Most of the time, he sat looking out of the window.
Also on the flight was Cyrus Madon. He talked with fellow passengers on the flight.
‘You know,’ he said, ‘I always thought of my brother as a happy man, but now all I can think about is him falling from the aircraft. All I am getting is a still picture of him falling from the sky.’
In Cork, Ireland, Sidhu was shown pictures of Sukhwinder and Parminder. They didn’t look anything like they did when he had seen them on Saturday morning to say goodbye. Sidhu will never forget the missing eye, the broken nose and a huge stitched-up cut on Parminder’s face.
‘I couldn’t be positive it was them. I was only 50 per cent sure – then we had to use dental records for positive identification.’
The body of Kuldip, the favorite grandchild of Mehnga Singh Sidhu, was not among the 131 bodies picked up within two days of the disaster. The 70-year-old man sat in one corner of his home in Vancouver, gazing at the ceiling with a blank look in his eyes. Destiny had dealt him more blows that he could bear.
As Canadian families counted their massive losses, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was busy sending his condolences to Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, to the chagrin of the victims’ relatives in Canada. Two hundred and eighty of the victims were Canadians; it didn’t matter that most of them were of Indian descent. The Prime Minister quickly realized his mistake and hastened to correct it.
‘I would like to convey my deepest personal condolences and those of the Canadian government to all members of the bereaved families on the occasion of the terrible loss of Air India Flight 182,’ the Prime Minister’s message to the Canadian relatives said.
In the Air India office during the morning of Sunday 23 June, as word of the scale of the disaster filtered out, was acting Vancouver Indian Consul Gurinder Singh. Both he and Parakh had been a the party together the previous evening. An early morning call from his superiors in Ottawa had asked the Consul to begin looking the tragedy of Air India, as there was some suspicion of sabotage because of the Narita incident. Amid the gathering of relatives and the constant buzz of telephone calls, the telex machine in the Air India office began whirring again. It was Air India’s Tokyo office.
‘Good morning,’ said the text. ‘Kindly investigate details of following two passengers supposed to travel CP 003 22 June Vancouver/Narita and Air India 301 23 June Narita/Bangkok, who no showed Air India 301. Singh/A Mr. PNR H6269 original CP/Vancouver booking reference YVRCP/QG4JIBA301XF of 16 June and Signh/L Mr. PNRH639R original CP/Vancouver booking reference YVRCP/UZCJPSA301XF of 20 June 85. Most grateful your urgent reply due above required by manager Japan in connection with Narita Airport baggage explosion. Regards.’
The mystery of the missing Singhs had begun.