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The Kirpal Inquiry
No one wanted to take blame for what had happened to Air India Flight 182. That became evident as Indian Judge Bhupinder Kirpal began his official inquiry in mid November in New Delhi to find the cause of the crash of Kanishka. The lawyers representing various parties, such as the Canadian government, Air India, Boeing and Air Canada, wanted to make sure their clients weren’t saddled with the burden of what had happened.
The reasons were obvious. Multi-million dollar civil suits by the families of the victims were pending. Boeing wanted to make sure that there was no fault attributed to the pride of their aircraft manufacturing plant, the Boeing 747. Air Canada wanted to establish that the extra engine mounted by its technicians had played no role in the crash, nor had the door that had been removed and refitted at Toronto. The Canadian government lawyer, as he had done in Cork, tried to come up with all kinds of other possible causes but a bomb. Air India’s lawyer, Lalit Bhasin, badgered Mountie Mike Atkinson, of the national crime intelligence unit, as though the RCMP were in charge of baggage security at Canadian airports. Atkinson was caught in the middle. The questions regarding airport security should properly have been addressed by Transport Canada.
It wasn’t until Judge Kirpal put his foot down that the fault-finding stopped and the fact-finding began. It was the RCMP which would hand Kirpal the answer to the tragedy on a platter. Sgt. Atkinson had been elected to go to New Delhi on behalf of the task force. He walked in with Canadian government lawyer Ivan Whitehall and more than 1,000 pages of affidavits the RCMP had gathered from every witness who knew anything at all about Air India Flight 182.
The Mounties had been astonishingly thorough. They presented the court with evidence covering everything from the booking of the flight reservations for M. and L. Singh to the time the flight left Toronto and Montreal. The RCMP had covered every possible angle that could be explored, even going to the extent of visiting London to interview Captain Narendra’s girlfriend Valerie Evans at Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 3. The RCMP also presented Kirpal with confidential criminal information which had already convinced the police in Canada that Air India had been downed by a bomb and that the tragedy was related to the Narita bombing.
The comprehensive Khola Report on the disaster was presented to Kirpal as well, with a pile of additional reports by the various investigative groups that Khola had formed. Included in the report were transcripts of Air Traffic Control conversations with the doomed plane all the way from Montreal and Gander in Canada to the last-minute conversation of the co-pilot with Shannon. The transcripts left no doubt that everything was normal with the flight until the moment of the explosion.
Other significant aspects of Khola’s report were the maintenance and rust prevention programs undertaken on the aircraft. (The report showed that minor superficial corrosion was present in the toilet area, which is common. Khola concluded that rust had played no role in the disaster.)
In the first session of the Kirpal Commission Inquiry only three witnesses were called: Mike Atkinson of the RCMP, British pathologist Ian Hill, who had already testified in Cork, and Khola, who was cross-examined at length.
Khola testified that he was given to understand that security at Canadian Airports was the responsibility of the government agency called Transport Canada, but that Air India had a contractual agreement with Burns Security to provide secondary security checks of baggage and passengers. Whitehall suggested to Khola that the RCMP, although present at Canadian Airports, play the role of peacekeepers rather than maintainers of baggage security. (What about prevention of terrorism on a clear terrorist target?). Whitehall also questioned Khola about the non-functional auxiliary power unit on the aircraft. The APU provides electricity to the aircraft when on the ground, but the unit on Kanishka had not worked since the aircraft had left Bombay, and in Toronto and Montreal the plane was connected to ground power sources.
‘Is it correct that the primary source of electricity of the Boeing 747 is from the four engines while the aircraft is flying?’ asked Whitehall. ‘If the electricity is interrupted for some reason then it is the APU which will provide the electricity while the aircraft is flying?’
‘What is suggested is correct but that is not the only source of power. The alternative source is also from the batteries,’ replied Khola. But he admitted that should the engine power supply be cut off, then the APU would supply power to the Cockpit Voice Recorder and the Flight Data Recorder, which do not have battery backup. However, experts agree that if the cables supplying electricity to the black boxes are severed, both sources of power are cut off simultaneously.
Whitehall also wanted to know why Captain Narendra was declared unfit to fly in May 1975 for a period of three months. Khola said that Narendra had suffered from an uncomplicated case of diabetes mellitus, but the condition had not persisted and he was allowed to return to his job. In reply to a question from Air Canada lawyer J. P. Moore, Khola said that the fifth engine mounted on the left wing by Air Canada technicians had caused no problem that had contributed to the downing of the aircraft. He also testified that the door that had been removed and refitted in Toronto to allow the loading of the fifth engine cowling had remained secure and caused no trouble. Air Canada clearly wanted to make sure no-one would blame it for the disaster.
Dr Hill, an aviation pathologist from Farnborough, England, was part of the medical group set up by Khola to study and prepare a report on the state of the bodies and any evidence that could be obtained from that aspect of the investigation. Hill testified that of the 39 per cent of the passengers of AI-182 whose bodies had been recovered, most had been seated in the aft area of the aircraft, namely zones C, D, and E – the last zone being right above the aft cargo compartment. He found that bodies of children recovered from the crash site mercifully showed much less severity of injury than those of adults.
Hill, as he had done in Cork, testified again that passengers in the rearmost section of the aircraft had suffered most of the flail injuries, caused by wild flinging of the limbs which results in dislocation of bone joints. He said the significance of the flail injuries was that the passengers were thrown out of the aircraft at altitude, again supporting the evidence of Khola’s structure group that the plane opened up suddenly while in flight. He agreed that the injuries the victims had received were not indicative of an explosion in the immediate vicinity of the passengers, but added, ‘By immediate vicinity I was thinking of an explosive device being in the passenger compartment itself. An explosive device in the front or the rear cargo hold would not be regarded by me to be in the immediate vicinity.’
Hill told Judge Kirpal that 25 of the bodies he had examined showed signs of decompression. Seven of the victims who showed these signs were children. He said passengers seated on the right side of the aircraft showed more evidence of decompression, and that it would take less than a second for a person to exhibit such signs of decompression. Hill said the evidence of decompression. Hill said the evidence of decompression injury is shown by extensive damage within the lung tissue and is generally more severe if the person is sitting close to the area where the decompression of the pressurized cabin occurs. Hill said a majority of the passengers probably died prior to hitting the water but at least four passengers were apparently still alive when they hit the water. Hill also stated that from the injuries he had seen, if a bomb was aboard the plane and was carried in one of the cargo holds, it was more likely to have been in the rear hold because of the massive upward vertical forces that had hit passengers sitting at the back of the plane. The only obvious conclusion to be drawn from Hill’s testimony, which had varied little from what he had said during the Cork inquest, was that an explosion definitely had not occurred within the aircraft’s cabin.
The man of the moment at the inquiry was the Mountie. He went into great detail about the workings of the airports at Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal and made it categorically clear that M. Singh had never boarded his flight out of Vancouver for Toronto, although he had made a fuss to get his bag interlined with Air India. He also said that the German airline Lufthansa and Air India were the only ones who X-rayed their baggage on a continuing basis. He further noted that Air India was the only airline he knew of which used a security number system to make sure all passengers who had checked in had boarded.
Atkinson was then questioned by R. K. Anand, for the government of India, about the system employed by Canadian Pacific Airlines in Vancouver where the two killer bombs had been boarded.
‘You had indicated that the baggage on CP 60 [the flight which carried M. Singh’s bag to AI-182] was not X-rayed. Can you tell us as to whether the baggage on CP 003 [which carried the bag bomb to Narita] was X-rayed or not?’
‘I am unaware of it,’ the policeman replied.
‘I suggest to you that as of June 22, 1985 there was no system of having an X-ray machine in respect of the check-in baggage at Vancouver. Is that correct?’
‘There were X-ray machines at Vancouver but I don’t believe that they were in the baggage area.’
‘It is suggested to you that if the security number system was used on Flight 60, then the baggage of M. Singh could not have gone into the aircraft. Is that correct?’
‘If the full security number system with respect to baggage and passengers was used on CP 60, then the baggage should not have gone on the aircraft,’ replied Atkinson.
‘I suggest to you that if the security number system had been used by CP Air for its international flights, especially CP 003 [to Narita], the baggage of L. Singh would not have gone into the aircraft,’ Anand pressed.
‘If L. Singh had traveled, then the baggage would have gone onto the aircraft,’ replied Atkinson, ‘but if L. Singh had not traveled then the baggage would not have gone to the aircraft.’
‘Did your investigation reveal that CP Flights 60 and 003 were booked and that the tickets were purchased at the same time?’
‘… The tickets for L. Singh and M. Singh were booked at the same time and picked up at the same time,’ said the Mountie.
‘Is it correct that the contact telephone number given in respect of L. Singh and M. Singh was the same?’
‘I believe it so,’ said the RCMP officer. The number, of course, was the Vancouver number 437-3216, belonging formerly to the self-proclaimed moderate Sikh, Hardial Singh Johal.
‘If there is a confirmed ticket from Vancouver to Toronto and a person is wait-listed from Toronto onward,’ asked the lawyer, ‘would the CP agent accept the baggage to Delhi at the time of check-in at Vancouver [As Jeannie Adams had done at Vancouver Airport with M. Singh’s bag]?’
‘I don’t believe that would be so,’ replied the officer. Atkinson also agreed that a passenger wait-listed on Air India in Toronto would have to check in at the Air India counter with his luggage.
‘On June 22, 1985, was there any procedure in Vancouver Airport to check the passport at the time of checking in passengers who were to be interlined for an international flight?’ pressed Anand, in apparent reference to the fact that despite regulations that require agents to check passports for passengers flying on international flights, no one remembers if anybody asked M. Singh or L. Singh to produce a passport in Vancouver. The requirement is clearly printed on all CP Air Passenger brochures and timetables.
Atkinson replied, ‘I do not know.’
‘At Vancouver Airport on June 22, was there any procedure for counting the number of passengers who had actually boarded the aircraft and comparing it with the number of passengers who had checked in?’
‘I am not aware of any procedure,’ said the officer.
Then it was Bhasin’s turn to grill the Mountie. The Air India lawyer suggested to him ‘that keeping in view the combination of various measures taken by Air India in consultation with the RCMP, Air India had the best security system as compared to other airlines as of June 22.’
‘All I can say is that Air India had security for their flights and it was more secure than for other airlines,’ was Atkinson’s response.
‘Is it correct that Air India was the only airline which had names and address tags on all checked baggage?’
I am not aware of that.’
‘Is it a fact that Air India was the only airline which had cabin security checks before the boarding of the cabin crew?’
‘No, I am not aware of that.’
‘Are you aware that Air India was the only airline at that point in time to have 24-hour cargo pooling?’
‘No, I am not aware of that.’
‘Are you aware that Air India is the only airline which had pantry and food uplift security checks?’
‘No, I am not aware of that,’ replied the Mountie, taking the heat for the Disneyland security atmosphere at Canadian airports prior to the Air India and Narita blasts.
‘Are you aware that Air India made a request to the RCMP in the month of January 1985 that the services of a dog should be provided for sniffing the baggage, and this request was turned down?” Anand asked.
‘I am aware that there was a meeting between Air India personnel and the RCMP,’ said Atkinson. ‘I don’t know what was discussed.’
When the first session of the Kirpal Inquiry adjourned, the whole affair had again boiled down to M. Singh and L. Singh. And their deadly bags.
The second session of the Kirpal Commission, which opened on 22 January 1986, would finally bear fruit. A Canadian Aviation Safety Board officer, Bernard Caiger, found himself caged by Boeing Lawyer Steven Bell. Caiger admitted finally that he had ‘briefly’ seen a report that showed that a bomb in the forward luggage hold had caused the tragedy.
‘I am not sure whether it says a bomb was the cause or the probable cause,’ he hedged. Pressed further, he said that he had seen no other cause listed. At last, somebody was finally talking about the foregone conclusion the Mounties had reached on Day One after the crash.
Later, Canadian officials did a considerable amount of backtracking. But Caiger had said his analysis of the Cockpit Voice Recorder had shown a ‘bang’ when the recorder stopped working and the jet disintegrated. That was nothing new either. Paul Tuner, of the US National Transportation Safety Board, had already said a long time ago that an explosion occurred close to the cockpit.
Two experts, however, one from Boeing and one from India, made it plain in their testimony at the Kirpal hearings that they believed there had been a bomb on Air India Flight 182 – although they gave different versions of where the device was located.
Boeing investigator Harold Piper testified that he felt the explosive device must have been located in the back of the aircraft, as Khola had concluded, because of the spread of the wreckage of the tail end over a wide area.
‘My opinion is that there was an explosive device in the aft end of the airplane,’ Piper said. ‘From the wide dispersion [of the tail end] it was clear that it had broken into many pieces.’
Piper said he had reached his conclusion from studying the wreckage distribution on the sea bed. But S. N. Seshadri, the man who analyzed the tape from the Cockpit Voice Recorder, concluded that the explosion was in the front end, probably about 10 to 13 metres behind the cockpit, in the forward luggage hold. Shrapnel and holes found in the wreckage of the forward hold tend to back up that belief, another Indian scientist testified.
A British expert, however, said he had failed to find any evidence of a bomb from his analysis of the recording. He agreed, though, that his findings didn’t rule out a bomb.
There were lots of reasons why so many experts had been dragging their feet on the bomb question at the Kirpal inquiry. Especially those representing Canadian government bodies. The basic reason was that admitting that a bomb had downed the jet would leave the government wide open to lawsuits.
Nevertheless, Kirpal already knew the answer to what had happened to the Air India jet. When questioned by a reporter weeks before the inquiry while looking at some of the wreckage, the judge smiled when asked if he would be able to make up his mind. He knew the answer already. He nodded his head and smiled.