I still remember the moment vividly. It was June 23, 1985 and I was a plane crazy 8 year old boy in Bombay. We were just sitting down to Sunday lunch at my uncle's house when the telephone rang. It was the Air India office calling for my father, and immediately the atmosphere tensed. If they had tracked him down here on a Sunday then something had gone horribly wrong.
He took the phone and I watched as his face turned white. His first words were "How bad?". I remember seeing him wince as he heard the answer of THREE HUNDRED AND TWENTY NINE. My mother sensed the tension as well and held me close as dad hung up the phone and gave us the news.
"One of our planes has gone down off the coast of Ireland. I have to go."
and then to my uncle, "Can you drop them back home?"
We drove home in silence and turned on the Television. It was another 2 hours before the Television station interrupted the programming with Breaking News about the events. The depth of the tragedy was so immense that the state-run station actually pre-empted their weekly Sunday movie for news reports for only the second time in history (the first was after Indira Gandhi's assination the previous year). Throughout India, millions sat in silence and waited for more news.
Soon, my dad telephoned from the office. He told us that it was the Toronto flight (initial news reports had said that it was the New York flight) and gave us a list of the crew. I saw the names of many family friends on the list. I crossed my fingers, praying that some folks may have survived.
I slept uneasily that night as my dad helped organize flights for the crew families to Ireland. Every single family was visited by at least one fellow crew member to assist them to get things order. At some point, my dad came home and napped, but he was gone again by the time I woke the next morning.
That morning, at the bottom of the front page, the newspaper carried the news that a bomb had gone off at Tokyo airport as it was being unloaded from a Canadian aircraft. The editorial speculated whether the Ireland crash might be an act of sabotage, a suspicion confirmed later that day.
As the week progressed, rumors circulated in the media and through the airline grapevine. The airline family mourned the loss of not just 21 crew, but also their families who were accompanying them on this summer weeklong layover in Canada. We learned that Sunil Shukla had his pregnant wife with him on the flight, a wedding that I had attended the previous year. We learned that Sampat Lazar had his entire family with him save for one son who had been left behind as a punishment for bad grades. We learned that Dara Dumasia was on his last flight and due to retire at the end of the month. The papers were full of stories about the victims, but you don't appreciate the impact of those until it is someone you know in the flesh.
The Air India wall calendar that year consisted of ladies modelling saries in front of aircraft. The November picture featured "Emperor Kanishka", the aircraft that had gone down. I remember waking up every day that November and crying when I saw her on the wall.
The months and years passed and the story faded away into the collective subconscious of the nation. Periodically I would be reminded of the tragedy by something small. Cleaning out my closet, I found a small keepsake candle from Sunil and Irene Shukla's wedding. Updating my mom's telephone index, I had to remember to remove Kanu Thakur's number from the list. Going through an old photo album, I found a picture of my mom, Capt. Narendra and the rest of their 707 crew in Europe somewhere. Real people. Real friends.
Once I started college as an Aerospace Engineering major, I made AI
182 my obsession. I wrote to the agencies involved with the investigation and obtained copies of the accident report. All of them replied with the documents I requested except for the RCMP who sent me a polite letter saying that they could not comment as this was still an active criminal investigation. Every year, I wrote them to ask for information and every year the Air India Task Force sent a polite letter back signed by Inspector G.D. Bass expressing their regrets but thanking me for my support. Every June, I pulled the box of papers out of storage and read through them again.
Twice, I made plans to visit the AI
182 memorial near Cork in Ireland, but twice those plans fell through. The legal process meandered and stopped and stalled and restarted and 18 years passed. Finally, today on 10 February 2003, Inderjit Singh Reyat pleaded guilty to 329 counts of manslaughter and agreed to provide evidence against 2 of his fellow defendants.
Due process has taken its course and the first of the culprits will pay the price for his crimes. One day in the future, the others will be convicted and the case will be closed. Inspector G.D. Bass will be able send me the box of papers I have been requesting for almost 10 years. I will walk to the waters edge at the Air India memorial in Ireland and finally be satisfied that justice has been served. And somewhere, 329 souls will rest easier for it.
[Edited 2003-02-11 04:53:23]
"The A340-300 may boast a long range, but the A340 is underpowered" -- Robert Milton, CEO - Air Canada