Josy Joseph


Christmas eve at the arrival lounge of New Delhi's Indira Gandhi international airport was enough to put one through a rollercoaster of emotions, thanks to the relatives of passengers aboard Flight 814 gathered there in hope, in faith, in the fervent belief that their kith and kin are safe. Some 174 blindfolded passengers and 11 crew members were being flown around international airports by the hijackers. Defying logic and rewriting civil aviation lessons, Captain D Saran had been flying across time zones and nations, exhibiting nerve-breaking courage, with just thing on his mind: to ensure the safety of the passengers on his aircraft.

Initially everything seemed normal at the arrival lounge on Friday evening. All that the PA system would announce was that the flight from Kathmandu had been delayed and would land at 6 pm. As worried relatives began to mill around, airport authorities finally announced the truth: and thus started the pellmell.

Senior IA officials who reached the arrival lounge to defuse the soaring tempers had a difficult time, as the media had been far ahead of the government in breaking the news. IA official U M Shankar Pandey, a bulky and affable man, faced the music, but he was not nettled. Not even when Indian television channels began a string of goof-ups that led to confusion all around.

A few minutes after 7 pm, officials confirmed that the plane had landed at the Raja Sansi airport, Amritsar. Even as hopes began to soar over a possible strike by the National Security Guards, things took an unexpected turn. The plane, which had been standing idle till then, suddenly turned to the runway and took off, even as a fuel-tanker was moving towards it. It was clear that the hijackers feared a pre-emptive commando attack.

The aircraft then forcelanded at Lahore at 7.45 pm with only a few more minutes of fuel left. And came the night, with hopes of some action.

In the meantime, relatives kept pouring into the airport lounge. Dr Sanjeev Chibber, whose six family members are onboard, was abusive: "These Pakistanis are butchers. They will kill all of them." Katyal burst out: "Give them anything, anything, but please let my son and daughter(-in-law) go free." A few hours later, he was in hospital, recovering from the shock of learning that his son, 25-year-old Rupin, had been killed by hijackers.

At about 10.37 pm the aircraft took off from Lahore. As it headed towards Afghanistan, the mood at the airport too began to swing. Finally, when Flight 814 headed towards the Gulf region, the relatives were speechless. Now their kin were left at the mercy of a clutch of fanatics on board, with only the nerve-breaking bravery of an extraordinary pilot to save them.

As a senior official spoke of the plane heading towards the Gulf region, Dr Chibber said, "I want to have a smoke." I offered him a cigarette. Dragging deeply on it, he walked away, preferring silence to shared grief.

At about midnight, Minister of State for Aviation Professor Chaman Lal Gupta landed up at the airport, to tell the relatives of what the government was doing, and to assure them that the first priority was passenger safety. His senior minister Sharad Yadav followed late in the night and assured the same thing. Yadav, who climbed on to a chair to make himself heard, managed to strike a chord with the angry crowds.

Yadav was clear. It was not for the media attention that he was there. And in an attempt to touch base with angry relatives, he even went to the extent of saying that he was not sure if Pakistan could be given a clean chit in the entire affair, as the response from that government was very delayed.

Realising the gravity of what he was saying, he cautioned the media not to report this. "I am not speaking for you. First I will speak to these people, then to the media and the nation."

An old man shouted, "Why don't you go to the nation? Why have you come here?"

The minister did not respond.

Yet another relative, with tears drying on his cheeks shouted, "Why do such things happen only here? Sometimes a child gets crushed to death on an escalator, sometimes a plane is hijacked. Why do all these things happen only in Hindustan?"

At 1.35 am, the plane lands at Dubai, and hope begins to soar again even though for the next three hours there is almost no development at all. A joint secretary in the aviation ministry continued to brief relatives about the latest developments, while both ministers spend their time in the Air Traffic Control tower.

Winter nights in Delhi are foggy, and intensely cold. Some of the relatives were by now nodding off to sleep. The night was a long, painful affair of short naps and terror-filled dreams in New Delhi.

At 3 am when the Zee News crew got up to leave, an Indian Airlines officer remarked, "Please go back to your studios and clarify your wrong reports". As the reporter turned back to offer an explanation, two relatives shouted back at him: "Please get your butt off this place. We don't want to listen to you." I remained quiet.

In the initial confusion and conflicting claims, the media, ever eager and competing among itself to be first with the news, ended up with a string of fatal mistakes. To be first with the news was the priority of most media groups, not to be first with the accurate news.

By 3 am, meanwhile, it was clear that the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, had taken over negotiations. The UAE royal, who reportedly entered the aircraft, became the beacon of hope for hundreds of families.

As it became clear that the hijackers were ready to release some passengers, an IA Airbus 320 moved out, along with three cockpit crew and eight airhostesses, ready to leave for Dubai.

Captain R N Singh, a man in his early 40s, and his co-pilot walked to the IA office brimming with confidence. "We are all ready. We are trained for such jobs," Captain Singh told rediff.com after much prodding. He said Captain Saran, the brave pilot who has added a new chapter to aviation history by flying the aircraft under such duress and several landings and take-offs, is an 'old colleague'.

"He is a brave man, very experienced," Captain Singh said as he moved to his aircraft.

At 6.30 am the news broke that 25 people have been released by the hijackers. Sleepy faces lit up, but the ray of hope was broken abruptly when it was learnt that IC 814 had taken off with the rest of the passengers.

The day broke with more anxiety, and fading hopes. Manish Katyal and his cousin had been waiting through the night, and in the morning we started talking about their cousin's honeymoon to Nepal. Just after 8 am, officials announced that Rupin had been killed on board. Hearing this his father collapsed to the ground. And by 8 pm, the cousins were at the Star News studio to speak about their cousin.

Josy Joseph will never forget this particular X'mas eve.