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Where's The Bag?
RCMP headquarters at 225 Jarvis Street in Toronto was a beehive of activity. The list of people to be interviewed about the fate of Air India 182 was mind-boggling.
The list included a number of Air India employees including passenger agent Divyang Yodh and security man John D’Souza; Air Canada technicians who loaded the extra engine and prepared the aircraft for takeoff; employees of Burns Security who were assigned to Kanishka; Air Canada passenger agents who checked in the passengers; ground baggage handlers; four RCMP officers who were sitting under the plane keeping a watchful eye on it; cabin cleaners and baggage container loaders; anybody and everybody who had even a minor role to play while the aircraft was on the ground in Toronto. And even Jagdev Singh Nijjar, friend of co-pilot Bhinder, and the mysterious Sharma who had given them both a hard time.
There were so many questions to be answered. Did all the passengers who checked in board the aircraft when it left Toronto? What is the procedure for movement of baggage from the check-in area to the final point of loading? How many passengers were brought to Toronto from outside the city by connecting flights? Who did the crew of Kanishka associate with in their last days in the city? If there was an explosive device in a passenger’s bag, why wasn’t it detected by X-ray?
But the biggest question of all was: Did M. Singh’s bag definitely get aboard the doomed flight? Did anyone remember what it looked like; what color it was?
The Mounties, under the direction of Staff Sergeant Mike Atkinson of the national crime intelligence unit, began charting the movement of bags at Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson Airport on the day the flight left for its date with destruction. The 20-year-veteran of the RCMP knew his first task would be to prepare a video film of the operations of the airport. The purpose would be to determine exactly how luggage transfers were made at Toronto Airport, which is split into two terminals.
Terminal One handles most of the domestic traffic, including Canadian Pacific and the international airlines for which it is a handling agent. Terminal Two is leased by Air Canada and services airlines that it handles, including Air India and other overseas airlines. The job of picking up bags from interlined passengers arriving at Terminal One rests with a company called Consolidated Aviation Fueling and Services Ltd (CAFAS). Atkinson’s men would find that the CAFAS driver maintains a record of baggage picked up from the terminals on a time sheet for purposes of billing the airlines.
CP Flight 60, carrying M. Singh’s bag, arrived at Toronto’s Terminal One at about 4:10 p.m. Toronto time and docked at gate 51 with at least a dozen passengers who were connecting with other flights to continue their journey. The CAFAS driver’s records for 22 June show that he made three trips to CP 60 to pick up baggage to be transferred to Terminal Two, where Air Canada was handling the Air India bags. The three trips occurred between 5:00 p.m. and 6:30. The Mounties believe M. Singh’s bag would have been picked up by the CAFAS driver on his first trip, which was almost an hour after CP 60 had arrived.
Just to make sure, the RCMP contacted each of the passengers who had some in on CP Flight 60 from Vancouver and connected with other flights to continue their journey onward from Toronto. All of them said they had received their bags at their final destinations. There was no reason, then, to believe that M. Singh’s bag had not made it to the luggage sorting area from which Air India 182 luggage would be taken to the flight.
The RCMP also noted that Air India would not even be aware of the fact that M. Singh’s bag was being loaded onto their flight, because the bag, carrying an interliner tag for New Delhi, would automatically go to the sorting area for a security check along with other transit luggage destined for Flight 182. The Mounties would find that Air India, which had already pointed out to the Canadian government in the spring that it felt India’s commercial installations in Canada such as The State Bank of India and its own operations were a potential target for terrorists, were using a novel system to make sure all passengers who checked in actually boarded the aircraft.
The check-in of passengers had begun early on 22 June. Initially two counters had been opened and subsequently the number was increased to six, serving both economy and first class passengers. Passengers were being checked in by Air Canada personnel because the Canadian airline is the handling agent for Air India. According to the system of security recommended by the Indian airline, the Air Canada personnel would write a number on the boarding card of each passenger which would subsequently be compared with a control sheet at the time of boarding to make sure that all passengers who had checked in had boarded. And that’s exactly how the system had worked that day.
M. Singh did not check in with Air India, so his name would not appear on the security control sheet designed to make sure that all passengers who had checked in were aboard. A thorough check of the entire terminal showed no sign of any bag left behind. There was no doubt M. Singh’s bag had gone aboard Air India, a bag Jeannie Adams had recalled as being either gray or burgundy in color.
On Monday 24 June, RCMP officer K. T. Kervin talked to Burns Security staff member Naseem Nanji, who had heard a beep while a fellow employee was using a bomb-sniffer on a bag she thought was maroon in color. Later, she was interviewed for a second time, along with fellow Buns employees, by RCMP officer B. P. Thomas.
Nanji, 35, gave this statement to the RCMP Air India Task Force:
‘I joined Burns International Security Services on or about the 24th of June 1984. I was working full-time till January 11, 1985. On the 19th of January 1985 I started working the Air India flights on Saturdays only. My shift was from two o’clock to six o’clock in the afternoon. Normally I worked near the Canada customs area, watching the baggage belt area. My responsibility was to make sure no passengers but their luggage on the belt after being checked through. As I speak Hindi, I helped Air Canada staff if needed.
‘I think on the 1st of June 1985 I was switched and worked with the X-ray scanner. That day I was trained by Burns employee Stanley Noble,’ she revealed. ‘He gave me the impression he didn’t know everything about the shapes on the screen, but explained how to look for weapons such as guns and knives.’
Nanji also told police how little real training in security work she had received from Burns: ‘I was shown how to move the X-ray unit into place, plug it in and how to open the box on top to turn on the switch. Then I was shown how to pass baggage through the scanner and get a proper picture. I never attended any other training course to learn how to operate the X-ray scanner. The only course I got from Burns was first aid and CPR! (Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation)
‘On my second time using the X-ray scanner, on Saturday, June 8, it broke down and we used the sniffer that day to check the luggage of the [Air India] flight,’ Nanji said. She worked the X-ray machine by herself on 15 June, with colleague Jim Post and another man helping her put the luggage on the belt of the scanner.
‘By the way, I was told if I say a weapon in the X-ray picture I was to test the baggage with the sniffer,’ she said. ‘I was only to check with the sniffer if I say a gun.’
Talking about her first day with the scanner, when Stanley Noble showed her what to look for, Nanji said she had seen the shape of a gun, but upon examination it turned out to be a toy gun.
‘I didn’t receive any instructions for how to look for a bomb,’ she added. ‘I was told to look for funny wiring or connections. If a stereo receiver went through, it showed up on the screen. We often had stereo receivers go through in the suitcases. I think they were hidden in the suitcases so they didn’t have to pay duty over there.’
It was on 22 June while she was working on the baggage, putting it through the X-ray scanner that she had only used three times, that the machine packed up. The picture disappeared from the screen. The time was around 4:45 p.m., she said.
Air India security man John D’Souza came along then and tried to fix the scanner but couldn’t. So he instructed Nanji and Jim Post to use the PDD-4 explosive sniffer.
The CAFAS driver had just brought a cart of transit luggage from passengers who were coming in form other cities to connect with Air India 182. The time was around 5:00 p.m.
‘Between 5:15 and six o’clock I heard the sniffer beep when it checked a bag. Post was checking around on bag’s zipper when it beeped,’ said Nanji. ‘This bag was soft sided and had a zipper going all around it,’ she recalled. ‘I believe it was maroon in color.
‘James Post did a second check, and it beeped low in volume when it passed near the zipper’s lock,’ she added. ‘But the beeper wasn’t making a long whistling sound like it had when John the Air India man demonstrated the sniffer to us.
‘I never told Air India about these beeps because no one told us to call them if the sniffer [only] gave a short beep,’ she admitted.
Furthermore, Nanji said, during the X-ray checks, while the machine was working, she had seen more stereo radios inside some of the suitcases. She also say a television set that had been checked in and cardboard boxes full of nappies.
The X-ray machine was checked the next day, but no fault was found. Technicians told the Mounties that moving the machine back and forth may have caused a temporary blackout of the screen. There was no reason at all to believe that the machine had been tampered with. Technicians said they had fixed the device several times in the past because of problems caused by movement. The scanner, the Mounties were told, is designed to be put in one place and left there.
Next the Mounties interviewed Jim Post, the man who was using the hand-held explosive sniffer that Nanji and other workers said had given off a beep while he was checking a bag. But Post didn’t seem to be very happy about being interviewed. In fact, he wasn’t even happy that he had been assigned to work at the Airport.
Corporal B. P. Thomas was asking the questions. ‘How long have you worked for Burns security?’ he began.
‘Eight months. January 10th, 1985 I started.’
‘How often had you checked at the airport for Burns Security?’
‘I don’t know the exact dates. It’s on the time cards,’ replied Post.
‘Have you received [the] transport Canada passenger screening course?’ asked Thomas.
‘No. I was taken out and dumped in and told to do the job of checking baggage,’ Post told him.
‘What training have you received from Burns Security?’ the Mountie asked.
‘None at all, except the eight films for [the] Burns Security Orientation program. I got eighty-six per cent on those tests. I haven’t had any training at the airport.’
‘When the X-ray unit broke down, who instructed you to use the sniffer device?’
‘I didn’t have to be instructed,’ replied Post. ‘Common sense told me to use it.’
Asked what the sniffer was supposed to do should it detect an explosive, Post said he had been told it would make a loud whistling noise.
‘On Saturday, 22 June 1985, did the sniffer ever make a loud scream while you checked any bags?’
‘No. The only time it made a beep was when it was turned on or off. I would turn on the sniffer when a bag or baggage came. After the bag or baggage was checked I turned it off till the next baggage came. Each time it would beep as I turned it on and off.’
‘Did any Air India personnel show you how the sniffer worked that day?’
‘Just this fellow with the handlebar mustache and an air head,’ said Post, referring to John D’Souza, Air India security officer. ‘He came up to me while I was using the sniffer. He acted like he had all the answers. He said, “You use the sniffer this way.” I handed it to him.
‘He lit a match and held it about an inch away and it made a loud piercing scream. He told me to go around the edge of the bag. He didn’t tell me to push on the bag [to expel air from inside so the bomb detector could sniff it]. Even if this incident hadn’t happened I was going to tell Personnel I would not be going to the airport again.’
Post declined to sign the statement he had made to the Mounties.
He had also insisted on the presence of a friend while making the statement and on being allowed to read it over and correct it by himself.
During the loading of containers filled with luggage aboard the plane, conversations between the loaders, workers for Mega International who are cargo handlers for Air India, and ramp personnel are recorded. From these conversations the Mounties were able to draw exact diagrams showing which containers carried which bags when the plane finally left Montreal. They were also able to draw charts of the forward luggage compartment with its 16 containers which held 338 passenger bags.
Two containers close to the sensitive electronic bay of the aircraft contained bags bound for New Delhi from Toronto. M. Singh’s bag could have been in either of these two containers, since Jeannie Adams had marked it as destined for New Delhi. Three of the forward luggage containers were empty, While one held diplomatic bags and valuables weighing less than 20 kilograms. A container towards the rear of the front luggage hold carried fan blades and parts of the extra engine in wooden boxes.
The aft cargo compartment carried four pallets towards the front. They were loaded mostly with spare parts of the engine as well. The two rearmost containers also carried Toronto – Delhi baggage. The bulk cargo compartment, which is the smallest space on the aircraft’s sloping back section, held 27 bags bound for Delhi from Toronto.
Toronto Mounties also made the following notes from their extensive interviews:
Intelligence reports suggested that Bhinder had associated with Jagdev Singh Nijjar, whose brother Balbir Singh Nijjar is one of the most ardent supporters of the Sikh separatist movement in India. Balbir Singh has recently been posted to Equador as ambassador of the unborn Republic of Khalistan.
Nijjar later told this writer that police had questioned him about his friendship with Bhinder.
‘At no time did I give Bhinder any parcels,’ he told me. Intelligence sources have confirmed that through exhaustive inquiries they reached the conclusion that Nijjar’s friendship with the co-pilot was genuine, and they have no suspicions of Bhinder having carried any booby-trapped parcels into the cockpit. Canadian authorities also believe that Bhinder went shopping while he was in Toronto and carried his purchases wrapped in brown paper. Ground personnel who saw him boarding the plane said he carried a parcel about the size of a shoe box along with his flight briefcase.
Exhaustive police inquiries in Toronto also ruled out any booby-trapping of the extra engine, the doors of the Jumbo jet or the containers. But there was on curious incident that was reported to the RCMP by Burns Security officer Jack Prosser. He was working on crowd control when at around 5:30 two youths came up to him and said they wanted their mother off the flight. Prosser said one of the youths told him he had had a premonition about the flight and his mother should be allowed to get off. The security man escorted the two youths to an Air India representative, but they didn’t persist in their effort t to get their mother off the plane. They didn’t say what the nature of their premonition was.
It was Sharma who told the Mounties what he had been up to the evening before the doomed flight when he entered Bhinder’s room while the co-pilot was with his friend Nijjar. They learned that the 26-year-old man was an insurance salesman. He was trying to deliver a message to a London, England resident named Tahir Ali, a former agent of the Indian Intelligence agency called the Central Bureau of Investigations. London police interviewed Tahir Ali and he admitted knowing Sharma. But he said he didn’t know what message Sharma was talking about. RCMP believe Sharma was using the supposed message as an excuse to meet Captain Narendra, who was refusing to see him.
Vancouver RCMP officer S. R. Miller went to Toronto to track down the CP Air 60 passenger who had patiently waited behind M. Singh as he argued with Jeannie Adams about his bag. This passenger turned out to be a former manager of Toronto Airport, and he remembered the East Indian male who carried a briefcase and wore a gray suit.
‘When the East Indian male reached the check-in agent, there seemed to be a considerable discussion between him and the agent,’ recalled the man, saying he had traveled on his birthday from Vancouver to Toronto on 22 June. He didn’t know then, of course, that he had traveled on a plane that had carried a bomb!
‘The gist of the conversation which I recall was to the effect that she could only check his bag so far as Toronto,’ the man said about the incident in Vancouver. ‘He was only wait-listed beyond Toronto.’
The former airport manager also told Miller, ‘I did not observe any jewelry. As I stood behind him his hair was well coiffeured. He [looked like a] neatly attired, well-turned-out businessman.’
A businessman, indeed. His only business that day, it appears, was to check in a bag bomb for Air India 182.
Another man the RCMP interviewed in Toronto was Otto Von Staffeldt, an Air Canada passenger agent who had worked on the first and business class counter. Here he had to check in the crew as well and take charge of unaccompanied children being deposited at his counter by their parents.
Von Staffeldt was almost reduced to tears when he recalled the children on Air India 182. How he had assured their parents that the kids were in good hands. How he had taken them to the flight and handed them over to the hostesses.
‘I spoke to all the parents [of seven unaccompanied children],’ he said. ‘I escorted them to the departure gate 55 minutes before departure. I then took them all on board to their seats, turning each one over to the flight attendant.
‘It has been my most devastating experience with Air Canada to date, to hear of the disaster the next morning,’ said the agent about the tragedy. ‘Remembering the children…I personally took by the hand on board the aircraft and the trusting parents I assured [that their children] were in good hands…’
He also recalled seeing co-pilot Bhinder with a brown parcel.
‘Bhinder did have brown wrapped packages in his buggy. I don’t recall how many packages he had,’ the agent said.
‘The packages that S. S. Bhinder carried on board, can you describe them? Asked Corporal Thomas.
‘They were wrapped in brown paper. They were sitting on top of his flight briefcase. I can’t say for a hundred per cent but there were one or two.’
‘Did they look heavy or light?’
‘I wouldn’t know, because they were on Bhinder’s buggy,’ replied the Air Canada agent, who obviously had been devastated by the deaths of the children he had taken to their seats.