Monday, 22 June 2015

30th anniversary of Air India Flight 182 disaster

As the morning sunshine slides across a memorial tomorrow morning in West Cork, a shadow on a sundial will mark the moment a jumbo jet was blasted out off the sky off the south-west coast.

At exactly 8.13am on June 23, 1985, Air India Flight 182 — en route from Montreal to New Delhi with a stopover in London — disappeared from radar screens at Shannon.

A total of 329 people were killed, including 268 Canadian citizens, 27 Britons, and 24 Indians. The majority of the victims were Canadian citizens of Indian ancestry. The incident was the largest mass murder in Canadian history. It was the deadliest terrorist attack involving an airplane until 9/11. It is also the deadliest aircraft bombing.

With no survivors, the biggest operation in the history of the State to recover bodies got under way with the Irish Naval Service being backed by the RAF, Royal Navy, fishing trawlers, merchant ships and coastguard teams.

Cork Airport and the city’s then Regional Hospital were the nerve centres as over 1,000 relatives, mainly Canadians of Indian origin, arrived to identify the victims.

Rear Admiral Mark Mellett of the navy recalls the search which would shed light on what happened to the ill-fated jumbo jet.

“Before we could go to the scene, American and Canadian experts had to fit a side scan sonar [to the vessel] which had the capacity to pick up transmissions from the black boxes — which are actually red.

“Much of the wreckage was about 2,000 metres below the surface. The ship was towing the sonar and we had to try and map the wreckage which was scattered over several square kilometres of the seabed,” he said.

The sonar was towed out about a mile behind the ship, scanning the ocean floor and searching for an all important ‘ping’ transmission from the black box.

As the technology was so new, he said, “we were learning as we went along”.

The navy was using a navigation system called DECCA which relied solely on land-based masts to show position. Unfortunately there was very poor coverage from DECCA in the search area.

“Then we got the pings from a black box. Until recovered we didn’t really trust what we had because we had never did that before.” Fingers were crossed as another ship brought in a deep water remotely controlled vehicle which retrieved the device.

He said that when he and some of LÉ Eithne’s crew saw the bodies being unloaded from LÉ Aisling they wanted to play their part in the mission and help find the black boxes.

“There was a sense of elation when this happened,” Rear Admiral Mellett said.

By 09:13 GMT, the cargo ship Laurentian Forest discovered wreckage of the aircraft and many bodies floating in the water. India's civil aviation minister announced the possibility that the plane had been destroyed by a bomb, and the cause was probably some sort of explosion. Previous 747s had been damaged or destroyed on the ground, but this was the first jumbo jet downed by sabotage.

The bomb killed all 22 crew and 307 passengers. 132 bodies were recovered; 197 were lost at sea. Eight bodies exhibited "flail pattern" injuries, indicating that they had exited the aircraft before it hit the water. This was a sign that the aircraft had broken up in mid-air. Twenty-six bodies showed signs of hypoxia (lack of oxygen). Twenty-five, mostly victims who were seated near windows, showed signs of explosive decompression. Twenty-three had signs of "injuries from a vertical force". Twenty-one passengers were found with little or no clothing.

One official quoted in the report stated, "All victims have been stated in the PM reports to have died of multiple injuries. Two of the dead, one infant and one child, are reported to have died of asphyxia. There is no doubt about the asphyxial death of the infant. In the case of the other child (Body No 93) there was some doubt because the findings could also be caused due to the child undergoing tumbling or spinning with the anchor point at the ankles. Three other victims undoubtedly died of drowning."

Additional evidence to support a bombing was retrieved from the broken up aircraft which lay on the sea bed at a depth of 6,700 feet (2,000 m). The British vessel Guardline Locator, equipped with sophisticated sonar, and the French cable-laying vessel Léon Thévenin, with its robot submarine Scarab, were dispatched to locate the flight data recorder (FDR) and cockpit voice recorder (CVR) boxes. The boxes would be difficult to find and it was imperative that the search commence quickly. By 4 July, the Guardline Locator detected signals on the sea bed. On 9 July, Scarab pinpointed the CVR and raised it to the surface. The next day, the FDR was also located and recovered.

Most official accounts place responsibility for the attack on Sikh extremism.

Monday 22 June 2015


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