The Aircrash and after​: ​Lest We Forget​…

(The author is a bank official-turned-journalist, having worked in both the fields in India and the Middle East for over three decades. Besides, he has been a hobby writer in English, Kannada and Konkani from his student days. He is known for writing on a wide gamut of subjects such as human interest stories, political analysis, social satire, theatre and music review, and plain humour. This write-up, filed at the request of an international media-house within days of the crash, was widely appreciated as in-depth, clinical analysis seen from different angles. Many websites and journal the world over have carried this story with permission.

Mangalorean.com culls this out of its archives. To avoid raking up the sad memories, no pictures are being published. – Editor-in-chief)

Saturday, May 22, 2010 – it was a real ‘Shatter’day for not only Mangalore and the environs, but the whole country as well.

A moderate overcast, absence of breeze and signs of impending mild showers gave an eerie outlook to the city, which had been going through a horrid, sultry spell of humidity for many days.

At 6-30 am, my phone at home rang. A friend hailing from Bajpe broke the news that an aircraft arriving from Dubai had ‘landed’ in trouble and that he, living close to the spot, could see blazing flames rending the air.

And Mangalore, yet again, came into international focus for another wrong reason.

I immediately alerted many friends and colleagues in the media. None of them apparently had heard the news until then. (In fact, with many of them working through late night hours as a routine, I happened to wake up a few of them.)

I also called the police control room, and the officer in charge said that they already had received the initial flash report and the forces were rushing to the spot.

The magnitude of the mishap was such that no one, be it the officials or citizens, would dare give an immediate response or information. Everyone was shell-shocked and did not know how to react.

Even before hearing an official version, the very thought of a Boeing overshooting the runway and falling into a gorge deep below no doubt forebode the spectre of a large number of casualties.

Public response

The first one to alert the police was Mohammed Saleem, a resident of the area, who, around 6 am, was returning home from a mosque nearby after his morning prayers.

As he saw the plane crashing around 6-02 am, the first thing that came to his mind was to convey the news to the police control room, which he did at 6-04 am as records show.

The city police commissioner, Seemant Kumar Singh, upon being informed at once, called Saleem back soon after to confirm the news from him and to ensure that it was not a hoax call.

Apparently one of the first persons to reach the crash site immediately was N. Syed Bilal, a railway trackman hailing from Tamil Nadu, who was on his duty of routine morning round at that time. The first thing he did was to call the owner of his rented house, who happened to own a car, so that the survivors could be transferred for medical attention. Another case of presence of mind.

Bilal helped the survivors and bodies to be taken to hospitals by means of any immediately available mode of transport. The first one to be rescued was the Bangladeshi student from the KMC, Manipal, Dr Sabrina, who was found stuck between the trees.

Initial reports confirmed that the site of the crash was surrounded by heavy forest growth and thickets. So the rescue teams could not rush to the spot at once as there was no approach road. Soon earth-moving equipment was requisitioned to create a makeshift road for the fire-tenders and ambulances to go for the passengers’ rescue. But by then, precious time was lost.

But the real angels in the moment of disaster were the residents in the vicinity, who rushed in scores and did whatever they could. Most of them slogged day and night in getting as many people out alive and retrieving whatever was left of the persons of the passengers. They had forgotten the risk to their lives, hunger and thirst. Most of them were seen exhausted by afternoon and new volunteers too joined in. Kudos to the valiant volunteers !

Joel Pratap D’Souza, one of the passengers who jumped out for safety, showed remarkable presence of mind by rushing straight to the airport and informing the aviation and immigration officials of the tragedy.

He also made sure to have his passport marked with the ‘Entry’ stamp, which act was to hold him in good stead during the later procedures. The Air India bosses have reportedly taken cognizance of his quick reflexes and have offered him a job in appreciation of it.

Groundswell of support

In the unprecedented kind of crisis that cropped up from nowhere, if there was one person who was sorely missed it was perhaps the district’s deputy commissioner, V. Ponnuraj, who along with wife Hemalata, the deputy commissioner of adjacent Udupi district, happened to be away on training in the US.

This is not to discredit the way in which the others handled the situation. The pro-tem DC Prabhakar Sharma, inspector general of police of the western range Gopal B Hosur and police commissioner Seemant Kumar Singh together swung into action and deftly handled the crisis.

The police forces, fire-fighters, the Home Guards and volunteers did their best in trying to save as many lives as possible. But almost all the survivors were only those who either were thrown out or had jumped out when the aircraft tore apart with the impact.

Later on, elected representatives and leaders too joined in the relief service. Among the heavyweights stands out the former union minister B Janardhan Poojary. Known to dress in immaculate white always, he was seen to actively take part in carrying the bodies to the ambulances.

At the national level, prime minister Manmohan Singh took stock of the situation as soon as the news was flashed. He instructed minister for civil aviation Praful Patel and a few other ministers and top officials to airdash to Mangalore at once, and also kept personally monitoring the developments from Delhi.

State chief minister Yeddyurappa, home minister V S Acharya and other officials too tried to airdash but had to force-land at Hassan because of bad weather on the Western Ghats, only to continue the journey by road to Mangalore.

The union and state governments too set the requisite machinery in motion. The services of all the hospitals in the city and around, along with ambulances and paramedical services, were requisitioned. It was a well-coordinated job, in spite of limitations and shortfalls.

Once the survivors and the victims were accounted for, the scene turned to the district Wenlock hospital, where all the bodies of victims were placed for identification by the next of kin.

But there was the flipside as well. The convergence of several VIPs and heavyweights on the city at the same time seemed to have put tremendous pressure on the police protocol and escort resources.

The pain and poignancy

The story of each victim of the ill-fated flight evokes painful thoughts. A brother eagerly coming for his sister’s marriage, a whole family made of a husband, his wife and daughter, also coming to attend a relative’s marriage, a son who had just visited his ailing mother in Udupi dashing back from Dubai the soon after to attend her funeral, a mother and two children, a mother, daughter and granddaughter, those returning after a holiday visit to Dubai, whole families perishing in the crash, sole breadwinners losing their lives leaving the family in a state of daze and destitution – the details are heart-rending and the pain seems eternal.

It was a scene of pain and poignancy. With most of the bodies being beyond recognition, it was hardship and trauma combined for the relatives to identify their dear departed.

In the face of extreme difficulty in handing over the right remains to the legitimate claimants, finally, the district administration decided to send the DNA samples to the forensic lab in Hyderabad to facilitate proper and correct identification. They also saw to it that the red-tape and delays were avoided.

Alas, in spite of the best efforts made in this regard, the mortal remains of 12 victims could not be identified as the DNA samples had not matched. With the consent of the bereaved families, a mass burial was conducted on the river bank at Kulur in the afternoon of June 2.

The quiet-flowing Phalguni river was a mute witness as the Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Sikh prayers were offered, with a clear message that all religions are one and that death is the ultimate leveller.

The aftermath

While the cockpit recorder was retrieved in the early stages of the rescue operation, the crucial part of the aircraft, the voice data recorder, known in aviation parlance as the ‘black box’, could be traced only after three days.

The recorded data in it is expected to reveal the circumstances leading to the crash during the landing process, including vital conversation that took place in the cockpit immediately preceding the mishap.

The response in the electronic media was unimaginable. While sympathy and expression of shock poured in from the world over, a part of it ranged from the ludicrous to the outrageous.

The blame game had already started. Long before the black box could be retrieved – let alone decoded, which process might take months – the pilots were being blamed.

It is easy to pass the buck, but it is quite uncharitable and unethical to put the blame on anyone who is not around to defend himself. Unless, of course, the black box should reveal something to that effect.

Armchair and coffee-table critics and commentators began giving advice and ‘expertise’ by arrogating themselves to the positions of aviation experts. What should have been or what has to be done, what would have averted the crash et cetera. Ad nauseam.

All this was done with least regard to the sentiments and sensitive state of the bereaved families.

Public opinion

Many comments on websites, blogs and the print media came loaded with ideas like extending the runway on either side, conveniently forgetting that on the southern side there lies the yawning Maravoor gorge and on the north the Sunkadakatte township.

Opinions shot from all sides, without even considering whether it was feasible to acquire any land where concrete buildings and residential layouts have come up in the recent years or if those who commented were prepared to give up their own property for expansion, had they owned any land in the area.

Then, there was a suggestion of shifting the airport to a more spacious location. With booming real estate market, pray, where literally on Dakshina Kannada earth is a suitable, alternative location, which will meet with all specifications including the National Building Code, which inhibits proximity of an airport to high-rise structures?

Well, as the good old saying goes, it is easier said than done.

Then there was a talk as to why Air India had to hire foreign pilots. Interestingly, but ironically, most of these comments came from the Indian expatriates themselves working abroad.

It is a known fact that a good number of experienced pilots from Indian airline companies have crossed over to greener pastures and there has been a severe dearth of expertise back home.

With the severe competition around and a glut of operators in the sky, safety aspects may have been given a go-by. It is this aspect which has to be addressed.

The term ‘table-top’ airport is much bandied about now. While the detractors of the runway heavily run it down, there are others who cite the examples of similar airports at Leh, Calicut (Kozhikode), Agartala, Guwahati, Silchar, Kullu, Port Blair and the like. (Leh airport is located at a whopping altitude of 10,683 feet above the sea level.)

The runway has been in operation since 2006. Over 36,000 takeoffs and landings have taken place with more or less no incidents, so to say. While what has happened should not have happened, the survivors say it all was over in two seconds.

This is a crucial point to be noted. What exactly happened between the time of clearance for landing from the air traffic controller (ATC) until the point of crash will be known only from a thorough enquiry.

Ringtones – a death-knell?

While the rigmarole over the runway and the operational and safety shortfalls continues, a major aspect of the whole episode appears to have been sidelined, according to an aviation expert, who we spoke to. The use of mobile phones is not only discouraged but is vehemently warned against during flights, since their signals are known to interrupt the aircraft’s operation.

Yet, many high-fliers do not adhere to the rules. With a sarcastic tinge, the expert feels that it is the psyche of a good number of Indians – educated ones at that – to prove one’s superiority or one-upmanship by breaking the rules.

“How can one be a hero without breaking the law, be it at jumping the traffic signals or violating anti-smoking law, or littering the parks and beaches?” quizzes he, peppering his words with a sense of frustration.

The survivors remember having heard multiple mobile ringtones just before landing. Could it be, to some extent, the aggregate effect of the mobile mischief? Even the black box would fail to tell us if that is the case.

From May 22, 2010, passengers flying from and into Mangalore are said to have been keeping away from mobiles during flights. But for how long? With the proverbially short public memory in place, it would be back to square one and ‘business as usual’ in a few days.

Stark truth

The underlying fact amidst the sad episode was that everyone stood as one in the crisis. There was no discrimination of caste, colour, creed or faith. The victims hailed from all major faiths. The volunteers and rescue force too had no language, regional, community or religious barriers.

In all it was a rare show of solidarity. Most of the young men who worked for hours at the crash site were motivated by humanitarian spirit. Then, why is that such potential is being diverted towards divisive politics by vested interests?

Do we have to learn this lesson only after going through a trauma of this kind? Or, have we learnt it or will we ever learn the lesson at all?

Perhaps it’s time to think of building up a youth force to face any emergencies, crises and disasters in future, by imparting proper orientation and awareness education. The same human resources can be utilized for socially beneficent causes as well.

VOX POPULI

“It was always a fascinating experience to visit the airport to receive or see off a friend at Bajpe all these years. I used to hop in when a seat was available in any acquaintance’s vehicle, even if the passenger was not known to me. I have never travelled by air. Now on, I will be haunted by the horrible crash. I have lost all the enthusiasm to visit the airport.”
– VSN, a small-time agriculturist

“It is a terrible tragedy. I would pray to God that such a thing would not befall even my enemy in future.” – KSR, a retired revenue official

“The blame is being passed on to each other. The tendency to blame the dead persons without proof is inhuman.” – BS, a teacher

“The environmentalists and a local committee from Karambar and Adyapady had fought tooth and nail against the laying of a new runway for years. They finally lost the battle in the Supreme Court, which, yet had insisted on certain safety measures. Have the directives been adhered to? No one knows. The only thing we now know there has been a crash as the runway was overshot.” – PM, a Karambar resident

“All this talk of runway deficiency did not exist for several years. After over 36,000 takeoffs and landings, a mechanical failure or a human error might have occurred. It is really unfortunate. I am terribly upset by the crash. My sentiments go out to the deceased and the injured and their families. However, one swallow cannot make a summer. The airport cannot be blamed on account of this crash. Mishaps have taken place in the world’s best and safest airports. Ways of destiny are strange. So let’s take care and be optimistic.” – AMK, businessman and a regular flier

“This is not to defend the culprits. There are reports of theft and pilferage at the crash site. It is a human tendency to make a fast buck in similar circumstances anywhere in India. You need education to banish such tendencies. Those who watched such things happen should have acted to stop it instead of writing in the media. I have heard a lot of people talking about a certain shopkeeper near the crash site, who thought it fit to hike the price of snacks and water in an emergency of this kind. What about big hoarders and black marketeers? What about the mediapersons who sold the clippings and stills of the tragedy the world over for a fancy consideration? Haven’t the paper guys, when the print order ran short, made photocopies and sold them in black? Why should the pot call the kettle black?” – VRD, a sociologist

1 Comment

  1. Air travel is a complex logistical operation involving man, machinery and technology. With the amount of technology and sophistication available today, it’s almost entirely safe to travel in an aircraft. The only unresolved piece of the puzzle is the role the humans play (mainly the pilots). A majority of the air disasters today can be squarely attributed to human errors.

    Most of the pilots today are more of glorified software operators. They fly less and press buttons more, relying on the machines to do the job. While this certainly is acceptable, the pilots today are increasingly losing touch with the fundamentals of flying as can be seen from the various accident investigation reports. The machine can not be fully relied upon every time and at that time (for example when the auto pilot automatically disengages for any reason) the pilots should be in a position to fully take over without panicking. Just look at Air France 447 disaster. They did not even use common sense in the crucial moments of that flight.

    The investigation report on the IX 812 disaster, which came out after a couple of years, clearly evidenced the pilot snoring for almost the entire duration of the flight. We can split hair all day and blame many internal and external factors but at the end of the day the flight crew inside the cockpit have to take full responsibility for the safety of the passengers. There can be absolutely no compromise under any circumstances made on this requirement. I have read reports later that the captain was overworked at that time and that, in my view, made all the difference. His exhaustion made him sleep till the last few minutes before landing. Mentally, he wasn’t fully prepared for landing as he had just woken up. The landing alignment overran the acceptable runway limits and this led to the confusion between the 2 pilots as to whether to stop the aircraft by a screeching halt or to touch-and-go for another landing attempt.

    If the captain wasn’t sleeping during the course of the flight, this landing misalignment would never have happened.

    If the captain was exhausted from overwork, he should have plainly declined to fly that night. Why did he not have the courage or conviction to refuse when he was playing with hundreds of peoples’ lives? They died a horrible death for a silly cockpit error. What about the pain and grief caused to those victims’ family members?

    Both the captains, by the looks of it, were highly experienced. But when they started their final descent did they not have enough brain to play safe and go round because they were fully aware they will be overshooting the runway? What kind of arrogance was that?

    I acknowledge it is easy for us to pass judgements while we are here on the ground which is so different from people who end up in that spot of predicament thousands of feet above. During those circumstances every second counts and every wrong decision can have disastrous consequences, as we have seen in this case. But they are called pilots for a reason. They are part of a profession which demands to be highly skilled and dedicated. That’s why not every TDH can become a pilot. It takes years and years of hard work to become a fully qualified pilot.

    Therefore it is my view that if it’s not a mechanical failure or not a navigation error caused by ATC then pilots have to take full responsibility for the disasters. Every other reason such as short runway, hill top etc. becomes secondary.

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