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Court of Horror
It was 17 September 1985. The stage was a courthouse in Cork. And unfolding before Coroner Cornelius Riordan was a drama of gruesome, gory horror. Most of the listeners sat in stunned silence. But the coroner had a job to do: to determine just what had happened to all the victims of the Air India 182 disaster who had been brought lifeless to the shores of Ireland. His job was to establish where, when and how they died as accurately as possible; to make some sense out of this tragedy.
‘It is my very sad duty today to open an inquest into the deaths of the victims of the Air India disaster,’ he began. ‘You are all aware of the grim tragedy which overtook the flight on the morning of 23rd June. As it left Montreal for London Heathrow on what turned out to be its last and fateful journey it had, I understand, 307 passengers and 22 crewmembers. Early on that June Sunday morning it encountered a fatal catastrophe over the Atlantic Ocean off the south coast of Ireland.’
Riordan thus set the stage for the coroner’s jury to listen to heart-breaking stories from pathologists and the few witnesses he was able to summon. A lawyer representing the Canadian government tried to impose limitations on how far he could go with his inquest. Ivan Whitehall was trying to draw a line for Riordan. He was, after all, a lawyer who was looking out for the interests of the Canadian government. That a bomb had been allowed to slip into an airliner that had already, several months before, asked for that government’s protection was the last thing Ottawa wanted the world to hear.
A parade of pathologists would willingly cooperate with Riordan, though. And despite the difficulty of getting other witnesses, Riordan would shed some light on what had happened. His first witness was Air India passenger agent Divyang Yodh, who was the man in charge when Air India Flight 182 left Toronto. He had traveled with it to Montreal. He had seen the passengers and crew off on their date with doom. But all Yodh could tell the court was the seating arrangements in the aircraft and the number of passengers in each of its sections. Then it was the turn of Thomas Lane, the air-traffic controller who was monitoring the radarscope when “Kanishka” – Air India Flight 182 – vanished from his screen.
‘I was at Radar Control at Shannon when I took up position at the radar screen. We had three aircraft in position [on the screen],’ he said, describing the events in the control room at Shannon. ‘There was between six and 20 miles between the first and last. I was in contact with the Jumbo jet and it was one of three aircraft approaching Shannon Control Zone about the same time. The three aircraft identified themselves and were given coded identifications by Shannon Control. These would enable Shannon Control to lock onto them, using computers in all subsequent transmissions. Air India was the first. There is a transponder code and we gave them their transponder code, which they acknowledged and were immediately identified by the radar controller. He would punch his number in and we would receive that then on our radarscope. That should then record what the altitude readout was and where the aircraft was.’
Lane testified that once the aircraft’s transponder tunes in to the Shannon Control radar, the aircraft’s position would show up as a diamond with five dots. ‘At 8:13 local time, I observed that the A1-182 signal deleted itself from the screen. It did not respond. He was not answering then. The three planes were on the screen for approximately eight to ten minutes when the Air India jet disappeared,’ said Lane. ‘The position was now serious and they did not reply and I called the aircraft that were behind and that was the TWA and Empress Flight.’
Then when all efforts to reach the Air India plane had failed, Lane said, he realized something deadly had happened. He declared a full-scale emergency.
Desmond Eglington, chief controller at Shannon, testified that the last contact with the aircraft was at approximately 8:09:58 local time (7:09:58 GMT). Less than four minutes later the plane disappeared from radar, he said.
‘The only other significant thing was that at approximately 7:14 GMT a carrier came up frequently and it lasted for approximately five or six seconds. A carrier wave. In other words, it is a [radio] wave, which was not modulated – a carrier with indecipherable modulation – it was like a shout or a noise of some description.
‘One would think the microphone was turned on,’ he continued. ‘At the end of that wave a noise – there was something there. Other people say it was a screech or a voice.’
Eglington said any number of scenarios could be put together on how that last transmission occurred from the aircraft. It could mean that the pilot was desperately trying to convey a message or that the microphone button could have been pressed inadvertently.
Thomas O’Connor, a plastic surgeon and deputy medical director of Cork Regional Hospital related the grim events that transpired subsequently as a major search effort was launched and bodies began arriving in Cork. It had become a city of death.
‘It was something we had not experienced in the past in any of the previous major disasters,’ he reported grimly. ‘Our mortuary facilities were insufficient and the gymnasium had to be used,’ he said. Army trucks had begun ferrying the bodies of the victims to hospital. The bodies had been labeled with numbers. The passengers had already become grim statistics.
‘They were labeled and each was given a number. We in fact did use the same numbers as the numbers given by police to prevent confusion. We forced teams of a doctor, a nurse and a clerical officer to make sure we had a record in relation to each body. Each victim was medically examined and relevant information was entered on charts.’
O’Connor said arrangements had to be made for shelving in refrigeration units to accommodate the 131 bodies which had been recovered. Arrangements were then made for postmortems to be performed by seven teams of doctors. All the bodies were subjected to X-ray. The scope of the disaster was massive, and yet the normal functions of Cork hospital had to be carried on too. The bishop had already offered the church for religious ceremonies of all kinds for relatives who were arriving. In fact several inter-denominational services were arranged. Sikhs and Hindus, Moslems and Christians, were praying together in one church. Sadly, though, it was religious strife that had caused the deaths of their loved ones.
Professor Cuimin Doyle, head of the Histopathology Department at Cork Hospital, was the first witness to testify about the postmortems, which began on the afternoon of Monday 24 June and continued till late Thursday evening. He performed examinations on 23 bodies in that period, while fellow pathologists carried out examinations on the rest of the dead.
‘My information is, and of course I myself performed postmortems on 23 bodies, but my information is, no evidence of an explosion was found,’ Doyle stated. ‘There was no evidence of burning on any of the bodies. There was no evidence of which I know of fire and no obnoxious sign in so far as explosive substances were found.’
‘What you are really saying is that if there was an explosive substance activated on the plane it did not touch the areas where these people were sitting?’ asked the coroner.
‘Yes, that’s correct.’
Doyle agreed with Coroner Riordan’s observation that if a bomb had exploded in the baggage compartment in the front of the aircraft, underneath the area where passengers were sitting, no evidence of the explosion would necessarily be found on the bodies of the victims – bearing in mind that a majority of those recovered had been sitting in the back of the aircraft.
Doyle was excused for the moment. Next called to the witness stand was policeman Con McGrath, who was in charge of the laborious process of identification of the bodies.
‘Each body was fingerprinted by members of the Garda and each body was photographed,’ McGrath told the assembly. ‘Physical features such as age, sex, clothing, jewelry or any other matter for record was put on forms. The items of clothing on each body were removed and placed in a bag. That bag was numbered with the number of the body from which the clothing was removed and there was one bag per body. Likewise, items of jewelry were removed from each body and placed in plastic bag and numbered. Each body was again photographed, this time in the nude. There was a dental examination of each body.’
When the relatives arrived, they were shown pictures, items of familiar clothing, jewelry, and familiar scars. The grim process enabled police to identify all 131 bodies that had been found.
Doyle came back to the stand and described the standard medical procedure employed in postmortems: examination of body tissue, internal organs and brain tissue, and microscopic examination of small samples of flesh taken from bodies.
One of the bodies he examined was the one labeled body number four. About this victim Doyle said, ‘This body was that of a young girt, an Indian girl of about ten years. She was of average build and partly clothed. There was no evidence of burning. There was some evidence of the body having been in the water. The external examination showed there was laceration of the scalp and there were fractures of the facial bones and of the left leg, and there were other bruises and abrasions on the surface of the skin. Internally, there were multiple fragmented fractures of the nose and the skull with tearing of the membrane and of the brain itself. The lungs were damaged and there was hemorrhage.’
If that sounded like a cruel death, the court was to hear of worse cases. This child’s body was one, which was in relatively good condition. The terrorists should have attended the inquest to see what their handiwork had done. Another body, that of a girl of only nine years who had been sitting in the tail end of the aircraft, showed extensive dislocation of bones. For example, in this child’s case, shoulders were broken, the right leg was broken above the ankle, the skull was fractured and the spinal column destroyed. She had suffered what is described as flail injury, caused by wild rotation of the limbs after being thrown clear from the aircraft at high altitude. This meant that the tail section of the aircraft had opened up in the air.
‘My understanding is that flail injury occurs when the body is thrown out of the plane. My understanding is that as the body descends it flutters like a leaf and the limbs are thrown about and clothing torn by the air,’ said Doyle.
Doyle also shed light on one of the more interesting findings of the inquest. Lower portions of the bodies of many of the victims showed penetration by tiny fragments of plastic and in some cases metal. Many of these fragments had struck the bodies as though the fragments had shot upward from somewhere below the bodies. There were also flakes of paint which had penetrated the bodies of some of the victims, indicating to Coroner Riordan that the particles had been propelled by a high velocity stream of air. That too would indicate breakup of the plane or opening of its pressurized cabin while in flight.
Dr John Hogan reported a nearly incredible finding he made while examining a woman who had been five months pregnant. Unbelievably, she was alive at the time of hitting the water. She had fallen from the sky and survived – only to die of drowning.
‘The other significant findings were large amounts of frothy fluid in her mouth and nostrils, and all of the air passages and the lungs were water-logged and extremely heavy,’ said the doctor about this victim. ‘There was water in the stomach and the uterine. The uterus contained a normal male fetus of approximately five months. The fetus was not traumatized and in my opinion death was due to drowning.’
The woman had died without even knowing that she was going to have a baby boy. The doctor said similar injuries received in a car accident could have been survivable. But the woman and her unborn child did not stand a chance in this case. Not after she hit the water, probably already unconscious.
Yet again, the topic of fragments of metal embedded in bodies came up during the course of the doctor’s testimony. But again the coroner was advised that Canadian authorities had asked for forensic evidence to be kept a secret.
Barry Galvin, State Solicitor for Cork, stated that ‘there is a murder investigation going on arising out of this incident – certainly not [originating] on our shore – [to determine if] there was an explosion and as a result of the explosion … these people were murdered. So far as forensic reports are very relevant to the murder investigation it is privileged. At the request of Canadian authorities the Attorney General has been asked to keep the documents in this regard privileged.’
The key witness at the inquest was Dr Ian Hill of the UK Accident Investigation Branch. Since 1975 he has probed numerous air crashes of all kinds and is a specialist in aviation pathology.
Doctor Hill had analyzed the severity of injuries suffered by the victims whose bodies had been recovered, a majority of them women and children – there were some 80 children aboard Air India 182 – and come to the conclusion that the most severe injuries had been suffered by people in the rear of the aircraft.
‘It suggests to me,’ the doctor said, ‘that something went very wrong in the tail section because a lot of the force was transmitted to those individuals sitting there. If we look at pelvic injuries, there appears to be a concentration of them in the rear portion of the aircraft, particularly on the right-hand side. These people sustained a severe vertical loading passing up through their seats, not necessarily aircraft seats, but through their seats.’
Air India maintenance engineer Parasnuram Kaule was then called in to enlighten the coroner about the structure of a 747, including its passenger cabins, luggage holds and electronic equipment and their location.
Kaule said that the forward luggage hold, which begins right behind the vital electronics bay of the aircraft, is about 42 feet long, 10 feet high and 12 feet wide. The aft hold is 62 feet long and shares the same dimensions of width and height, he said.
‘The Main Equipment Centre of the aircraft is situated forward of the cargo/baggage hold and aft of the nose undercarriage bay,’ Kaule continued. ‘The main electronic centre contains much of the aircraft’s electronic equipment, including two transponder sets, three VHF radio sets and the Flight Data Acquisition Unit. The two-transponder antennae are located immediately below the main equipment centre. AC power for the aircraft’s electronic equipment is provided by four engine-driven generators.
‘There are also batteries adjacent to the flight engineer’s section in the cockpit, providing emergency DC power to the captain’s essential flight instruments and one FHF radio set. Emergency battery power is not available for the two transponders nor for the Flight Data Acquisition Unit. The Digital Flight Data Recorder is located adjacent to the Cockpit Voice Recorder and it is fed from the Flight Data Acquisition Unit in the main equipment centre. It monitors some 70 parameters of airframe, engine and systems behavior and performance.’
Further, Kaule pointed out that from the electronics bay, data obtained by the Flight Data Acquisition Centre is fed through a cable below the floor level to the black boxes in the rear of the aircraft. He said that if the cable were severed recording would stop.
‘Everything is gone if the Main Equipment Centre is gone?’ asked Riordan.
‘Yes,’ replied Kaule.
‘If an event occurred which would have physically knocked out all the electric power, including the communications system in the pilot’s cockpit, such an event would have to occur in an area towards the front of the plane? There is nowhere else from where it could have produced such a catastrophic effect?’ Riordan asked.
‘No,’ replied the London-based maintenance engineer.
At the end of five days of testimony, the Coroner of Cork would receive a lecture from the Canadian government lawyer about what he could and could not do at the inquest. Mr. Whitehall presented a long argument to Riordan about the restrictions he was under in terms of his jurisdiction.
The coroner shot back the protest that he was being advised to play a merely administrative role of being a registrar of the deaths. He was being told just to ‘fill in a form’. Whitehall then said he didn’t even see how the jury was in any position to make any recommendations in this case.
Riordan knew he was being squeezed so that he wouldn’t say what was on his mind. He replied that he could see nothing wrong with narrowing down the possible causes of the accident to either structural failure or an explosive device. ‘There are others but they are a bit far-fetched and remote possibilities,’ the coroner pointed out.
‘Only when you examine the facts in detail,’ argued Whitehall. ‘With respect, you had no facts to examine.’
‘I had the fact that it is almost certain, I think there is sufficient evidence there to be very suggestive that there was a major violent issue up there, near the nerve centre of the plane, there was a violent incident up there,’ Riordan retorted.
‘With respect, sir, you don’t have that evidence,’ said the Canadian lawyer.
‘Well, it is very suggestive, I have evidence that both transponders failed, I have very strong evidence that the pilots were rendered incapable at the same time and I have very strong evidence that the navigational systems failed all at once,’ Riordan shot back.
Whitehall then said that the evidence of system failures had come from a mechanic, not an expert. The coroner reminded him that the Air India man was a mechanical engineer.
Despite all the objections, the coroner was determined to speak his mind.
‘I am satisfied that Section 30 [in connection with the legal powers of a coroner] is not as restrictive as Mr. Whitehall has submitted. I feel the section provides authority to go behind the immediate cause of death. If it didn’t I feel that the role of the corner would merely be that of completing an administrative document for the purpose of registering the deaths.’
However, the coroner agreed that it would be premature for him to make a ruling over security at Canadian airports, or to conclusively point his finger at an explosive device. He had pulled his punch, despite the fact that he knew he was on the right track.
‘There in the loneliness of the Atlantic Ocean lay lifeless wreckage and human bodies floating on the water,’ he said. ‘This was 51.03 degrees north and 12.44 west. That was about five miles away from where the airliner was when it went off the screen.
One of the wonders of modern technology had been reduced to a pitiful sight.’
Regarding the technical information he had heard, the coroner continued, it appeared that all the electrical systems had failed simultaneously on this modern marvel of an aircraft. Without a moment’s warning. He came to this conclusion:
‘In short, if the nerve centre should fail the plane has had a serious stroke, call it what you like. The plane was almost certainly in autopilot and it was traveling at about 600 miles per hour at the time of the incident and it was in the sea five miles ahead so it must have lost altitude very, very quickly. It would do five miles in half a minute. This suggests that the first violent incident put the nerve centre completely out of order and the pilot and co-pilot were rendered incapable.’
Riordan nevertheless asked his jury to make no positive finding, and not to make a recommendation. But outside the legal confines of the coroner’s court, months later, he would confide:
‘You know I didn’t get much cooperation in terms of calling the witnesses. Only a bomb explains everything,’ he told me in a telephone interview.
He was right, lawyer Whitehall’s strenuous objections notwithstanding, the marvel of modern technology had not been reduced to pieces of flotsam by anything less than a bomb.