Saturday 1 October 2016

'The Irish people saved us... when all else seemed lost'

It's 30 years next Tuesday since the Air ­India disaster off Cork, but still ­families come to mourn

Graham Clifford

Published 21/06/2015 | 02:30

Annual visit: Padmini and Babu, parents of Sanjay and Deepak Turlapati who were killed in the Air India explosion.
Annual visit: Padmini and Babu, parents of Sanjay and Deepak Turlapati who were killed in the Air India explosion.
Recover: Seats from Flight 182 are brought ashore

Through tear-filled eyes, Dr Padmini Turlapati gazes out to sea as the mist descends. She whispers: "I come here to speak with my boy, he is out there… in the water."

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The body of her 11-year-old son, Deepak, was never recovered from the Atlantic waters when the Air India Flight 182, en route from Montreal to London Heathrow, exploded 120-miles south west of the Cork coast 30 years ago. All 329 passengers and crew were killed in the terrorist attack.

Padmini and her husband, Babu, also lost their cherished 14-year-old son Sanjay in the disaster.

"Because of the impact, most of the bodies were located without clothes on, or at least partially clothed, but Sanjay had everything on but for one Hush Puppy shoe," explains his father.

Padmini adds: "In 1990 I actually met the man who pulled him from the water, I told him, you saved my son." Sanjay was buried in India - beside his grave a container of water taken from the Atlantic Ocean off Cork.

Since 1985 the Turlapatis have visited the Air India memorial site near Ahakista on the Sheep's Head peninsula every year. Next Tuesday they, and other families of the victims, will gather to remember their loved ones on the 30th anniversary of the disaster. They will be joined by various dignitaries from the Irish, Canadian and Indian governments including Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan, the Indian Minister for External Affairs and the Canadian Justice Minister. An Irish Naval vessel will anchor offshore and the Coast Guard will provide a flyover.

It's believed the terrorist attack was the work of the Sikh militant group Babbar Khalsa. Inderjit Singh Reyat, a Canadian national, remains the only person legally convicted of involvement in the bombing. Singh pleaded guilty in 2003 to manslaughter. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison for building the bombs that exploded aboard Flight 182 and at Tokyo's Narita Airport, where two baggage handlers were killed when another device exploded on the same morning.

Here in Ahakista, the Turlapatis, who are Hindu, have found peace. Amid the craggy headland and the sound of circling gulls, they feel close to their only children.

"If I didn't have a spot to come on pilgrimage, I don't know how I'd have ever survived," says Padmini.

"The support we've received from the local people over the years has been incredible, they sustained us. If I am standing today, it is totally because of the Irish," she adds.

On the evening of June 22, 1985 Padmini and Babu kissed their sons goodbye at Toronto Airport, the boys were travelling to India to visit their grandparents. But Padmini remembers her eldest son Sanjay didn't want to board the aircraft.

"Deepak walked on happily, he was playing with other children. But something was worrying Sanjay. He said 'I don't want to go on this airplane'. He walked off down this corridor to the departure lounge and looked back eight times to say goodbye. We always felt that the boys had an intuition about what was going to happen. The day before the flight, Deepak told me twice 'Mom, I'm going to die'."

At 6.30am the following morning a phone call woke the Turlapatis.

"It was a friend, she asked 'are your boys on the Air India flight?' We said yes, and she said something had happened and told us to turn on the television. My husband did and I heard him saying 'gone, gone, everything's gone, life's finished'," recalls Padmini.

"Sanjay's teacher told me that while sleeping on the night of the crash she felt a tap on her shoulder and she saw Sanjay in front of her, he told her 'we didn't reach India'. Then she felt a second tap - that was Deepak. It woke her. She lit candles for them before news broke about the accident."

For the next four days the Turlapatis grieved but had no contact from the Canadian government or Air India.

Eventually they were told to make their way to Ireland. They were put up in the Silver Springs Hotel in Cork while the recovery operation continued.

In all, 132 bodies were recovered and laid out at Cork Regional Hospital for identification. Local lifeboats and Irish and British naval crews worked day and night to recover the dead - 197 were lost at sea, including Deepak Turlapati.

"The only great thing is that the plane exploded over Irish waters - the people were so supportive, they listened to us and cared for us. You were the only people who helped us," says Babu.

Now the Turlapatis are part of the local community here.

"The bonds formed in pain never ever go away. Every human being we met here in Ireland has been a blessing," says Padmini. "Even the passport stamping fellow at Cork Airport knows us, 'ah, it's that time of the year again' he says with a kind smile; in the shops in Skibbereen, in the bank… all the people know us. It's like coming home. For nearly 30 years we've been coming back to the same cottage, the lady who owns it keeps it for us each year. We appreciate it from the bottom of our hearts."

They tell me of their boys, of Sanjay's maturity, creativity and kindness and of Deepak's ability to bring laughter and joy to all those he met. Two clever young boys with their entire lives in front of them at the time of their tragic death.

An investigation found a "cascading series of errors by Crown Ministries, the Royal Canadian Police force and Canada's intelligence service allowed the terrorist attack to take place."

The bombers checked the bags on the flight but never boarded themselves. X-ray machines failed to identify the explosive devices and when a sniffer dog barked at the bag containing the bomb, it is claimed the alert was ignored. Vital wire-tapped intelligence was either overlooked or destroyed.

Two witnesses who said they overheard Ajaib Singh Bagri admitting his involvement in the bombings were mysteriously murdered in England, making their affidavits inadmissible.

Bagri, a Sikh sawmill worker from British Columbia's interior, and Ripudaman Singh Malik, a Sikh millionaire from Vancouver, escaped prosecution. It is accepted that the two men masterminded the terrorist attacks.

Babu set up a charity in India, in his beloved son's names, to help underprivileged children. But after 30 years, he says the raw pain of losing Sanjay and Deepak in the sky over Ireland will never leave him.

"There's no way this pain will ever go," he says. "It will stay with us always. But here we find peace, love and humanity. Thank you Ireland for giving that to us. You saved us."

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