Anniversary of Air India tragedy marked in Ahakista

Posted on: 8th June, 2015

Category: Features

Contributor: West Cork People

On June 23, 1985, Air India Flight 182, a Boeing 747-237B operating on the Montreal–London–Delhi route, was blown up by a bomb at an altitude of 9,400m, crashing into the Atlantic Ocean while in Irish airspace. A total of 329 people were killed, including 280 Canadians, 27 British citizens and 22 Indians. The incident was the largest mass murder in Canadian history.

The attack was blamed on Sikh militants based in British Columbia who, prosecutors said, sought revenge for a deadly 1984 raid by Indian forces on the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest site of their religion.

Inderit Singh Reyat, who was convicted of manslaughter in the bombings, remains the only suspect convicted of a role in the attack. Two other accused were brought to trial, but never convicted.

An official report released in 2010 blames a ‘cascading series of errors’ by the Canadian government and authorities for the failure to prevent the disaster.

Each year since the crash, family members have returned to the memorial garden and sundial erected in Ahakista in West Cork in memory of the lives lost. Strong ties have formed between the returning families and locals in Ahakista. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the tragedy.

Lakshminarayana (Babu) and Padmini Turlapati lost their only children, two sons Sanjay (14) and Deepak (11) in the crash. Babu, an Accountant and Padmini, a Paediatrician, had immigrated from India to Canada in 1982, as they felt the move would give Sanjay and Deepak a broader perspective and greater opportunities. Babu and Padmini have been visiting Ireland every year since the tragedy, finding peace at the village where the monument was built in victims’ memory. This is their story.

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The plane left Toronto on the evening of June 22; its destination was New Delhi, India. Sanjay and Deepak were travelling as unaccompanied children on that ill-fated flight to see their grandparents in India. It was their first visit after we immigrated to Canada.

Our sons had demonstrated academic excellence and strong moral values. Sanjay was bright, alert and mature beyond his years. He wrote poetry, which his teacher planned to collect in a book. He had received awards for top academic standing in school. Deepak was also very bright, full of life and zest. He was a good negotiator, a good actor, who took part in school sponsored children science quiz programs on television. He too did well in school and was full of compassion.

Brothers Sanjay and Deepak Turlapati were both killed in the Air India crash in 1985

Brothers Sanjay and Deepak Turlapati were both killed in the Air India crash in 1985

Both of us were at the airport to see off our children on June 22, 1985. We handed them over to an air hostess since they were booked to travel as unaccompanied children. The plane got delayed by more than one hour. We went to sleep expecting to hear from our children the next evening after their maternal uncle received them in New Delhi. Instead we were woken up by a telephone call from a friend very early on the morning of June 23 asking whether our children had boarded the Air India plane that left the previous evening. After confirming they were on the plane, we were advised to turn on the television to check a news item on an Air India plane that left Toronto on June 22 and how it was missing from radar near Shannon, Ireland.

The news was devastating. We heard, on the television, the first account of the missing plane and that a search was on with the help of ships in the vicinity of the area. We finally heard the tragic end on the News. No one from Air India or any Government agency contacted us about the missing plane or loss of lives.

Our lives were shattered — it was the end of our hopes and dreams for our children; we would never watch them grow into adulthood. We felt a total void in our lives; no words can describe the agony we went through over the next few days, not knowing what had actually happened and not receiving any moral support, counselling, guidance and general concern from Air India or government/social agencies in Canada. The families involved felt that they were not viewed as ‘real Canadians’ and that this was somehow not considered to be a Canadian tragedy.

We were taken to Cork to identify the bodies found and were well-received and looked after by government/social agencies in Ireland. Each affected family was provided with a counsellor to help deal with the grief. We can say that the support and compassion shown by the Irish community during this process was the only silver lining that was seen by the victims’ families in this tragedy.

We feel that this disaster could have been avoided if only the security agencies in Canada had shared the information they had gathered prior to June 22, 1985 and used that intelligence in stopping the perpetrators committing the crime. They had sufficient knowledge and information of the perpetrators conspiring to commit the crime, following them closely through surveillance, but yet let them go scot-free to commit the crime. That showed the real lack of coordination among the agencies and utter disregard for human lives. We also blame Air India for not taking any extra care in carrying out security checks. Later the inefficiency of the security agencies in Canada became quite evident at the time of investigation. This ultimately later resulted in the acquittal of criminals due to lack of evidence in Supreme Court of British Columbia. We can only say that the whole investigation was bungled and the perpetrators of this heinous crime committed in Canada are still scot-free. It is really unfortunate for the families who have lost their loved ones that justice was not served.

Out of our two children, we recovered the body of Sanjay, our older son, but Deepak our younger son is still there in the waters. We come every year in June, so long as we have the strength to travel, to be with him and pay homage to all 329 victims plus the two baggage handlers who perished at Narita Airport in Tokyo.

As mentioned earlier, the affection, support and help we receive from the local Irish community is unparalleled. We always spend at least two weeks every year in June and have a good relationship with locals in Ahakista, Durrus and Bantry, the towns closest to the memorial site. We are always well-received by officials of Cork County and provided all the necessary help in conducting a service on the morning of June 23 at the memorial site each year. Since 2000, the families are also involved in presenting annual cash awards to two students from a Bantry area school with a ceremony held on June 21 at Bantry Court house in the victims’ memory.

The Azalias bloom every year at the memorial gardens and the sundial facing the backwaters bring us the peace and serenity to mourn the departed. We consider the monument built at that site as the best gift the families received from the Irish to remember and mourn the departed souls.

This year we will commemorate the 30th anniversary and hopefully more families will visit the monument and participate in the service. We do expect to see usual officials and the locals attending the service with local school children rendering music at the service. The families will present a musical instrument to the local school in appreciation of their support on the morning of June 22. Last year, we met Cork County Council, requesting that they ensure an annual service is conducted on June 23 every year, exactly at 8.13am, with a minutes’ silence remembering the innocent victims of this horrific tragedy. The families are very happy that the Council has agreed to this request.

We thank all our friends in Ireland and look forward to visiting the monument every year.

Babu and Padmini (Turlapatis) 

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