Monday, June 25, 2012

Doomed Flight 182 and Us   

An anxious morning at an airport remembered.
© 22 June 2011     by Victor Sullivan    

I have never had a problem with early morning rising. I enjoy driving along almost empty roads, beating the rush hour traffic while listening to the business chat-shows and news reports on the car radio. On the morning of 23rd June, 1985, I was on the road to Shannon Airport, accompanied by my wife, to meet our daughter who was returning on an early morning flight from a visit to America. It was a beautifully clear morning and the Irish countryside through we drove was lush and green. A few miles ahead a 747 rose majestically from the scenery and climbed into the clear blue sky. We were almost at the Airport and with thirty minutes to spare before Carol's scheduled arrival there would be ample time to relax with a cup of coffee. 
Hopefully she would arrive on time and we could head for home without delay.

The radio chat-show was unexpectedly interrupted by a newsflash, something about an aircraft  missing over the Atlantic. We drove into Shannon Airport's precincts, then, as we entered the car parking area the morning chat-show was again interrupted by the News-room:
'A commercial aircraft is reported to have disappeared from the radar screens without warning while over the Atlantic...'

Suddenly the situation hit us, hard. Our only daughter was in a commercial aircraft somewhere over the Atlantic!

Of course we did not believe that the impossible might have happened. That sort of thing doesn't happen to people like us, does it? Where can we get...?  Where...? Think! Arrivals; YES. There must be a list of any planes delayed.  We have no memory of the tedious matter of parking, locking the car doors or locating an Arrivals Display. What was Carol's Flight Number? Neither of us could remember. All the flights due within the next hour or two appeared to be on time. None delayed. But when was this list last updated? A 747 touched down outside and we waited anxiously for the Arrivals board to change. It did. Still no delays. The next one should be Carol's plane. We stood, holding sweaty hands, staring at the spot in the sky where we expected to see the approaching aircraft appear.  The scheduled arrival time passed according to my watch. Our hands gripped more tightly. One entire, very long minute late already! 'Here it comes!' It touches down gently and taxis towards the Terminal building. Time to join the welcoming gang outside the Customs Hall.  

'Carol!'  Hugs! Kisses! 'Mum!' 'Dad!' Tears, 'What's the matter? I've only been away for two weeks?' 
'Tell you in the car.'
Baggage trolley to car-park, forgot about coffee, barrier up and we are away on the open road towards home, rushing to get away from something unthinkable that hadn't happened to us. 

The car radio frequently interrupted its scheduled programmes and we were kept well informed about the unfolding horror story. It came as no surprise to find helicopters thundering overhead on arriving at our home in Cork. The aircraft that had vanished from the radar screens without warning at 07:14 GMT when approximately 100 miles off the south west coast of Ireland, was an Air India passenger aircraft, Flight No.182, en route from Canada to India. A terrorist bomb had blasted it apart in mid air at 31,000 feet, killing every one of the 329 people on board while we were driving through the peaceful, green Irish countryside from our home in Cork towards Shannon Airport. Our daughter had been in another east-bound aircraft, a few hundred miles away, at the fatal moment.

A huge Search and Recovery operation involving ships and aircraft located many bodies and body-parts and  transferred them to the Cork Regional Hospital, (now Cork University Hospital), where a team of doctors and nurses successfully identified the recovered victims and sent their coffins to their families in India, Canada and America. Sixty victims were children under the age of 10.

But many bodies were never recovered, a matter of great concern and distress to their relatives. Frank Donaldson, a friend of the author, proposed that an appropriate Monument should be erected as near as practical to the spot in the ocean where Fight 182 was destroyed. He identified a suitable location at Ahakista, near the village of Durrus, on the edge of Dunmanus Bay. The monument suggestion received unanimous support and sculptor Ken Thompson created a huge sundial, cleverly aligned so that the sun annually indicates the precise moment of the explosion in the baggage-hold of the doomed aircraft. 

The unveiling of the Sundial was carried out in complete secrecy at the request of the families of the victims.The news media were successfully outwitted. Many family members from India, Canada and elsewhere congregated at this unique monument and conducted a solemn unveiling ceremony that included the placing of wreaths on the sea. Appropriately on that moving occasion wind and tide combined to take the many wreaths out into Dunmanus Bay and westwards towards the spot in the Atlantic Ocean where Flight 182 ended. 

© Victor Sullivan

A Memorial Ceremony takes place annually at the Sundial on 23rd June.

A magnificient example of Indian artwork was presented to the Hospital, a token of gratitude for not only the grim work but also for the comfort and support given to the grieving relatives.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

'Tell the Pilot to Turn Back' by Victor Sullivan

Panic on a passenger aircraft.
© July 2011

The Aer Lingus Viscount turboprop flew steadily westward, its throttled back engines whining less urgently as we made our gradual descent towards Cork airport on a beautiful, clear, summer evening in the 1970s. Flying a mile or two off the coast, I was enjoying the view of Ireland's lush green fields and southern coastline from my window seat. I love flying. I enjoy trying to identify places and objects far below. I particularly enjoy looking for traces of archaeological sites that become clearer when illuminated by the late evening sun, faint circles in fields, some cut through by roads and lanes, questionable patterns, man-made? Perhaps.

I tried to ignore the man beside me who seemed determined to engage me in conversation about the horror headlines and photographs in his London evening paper. I knew it recounted violence, bombings, internment and murder in Northern Ireland, ugly demonstrations in Dublin and elsewhere in the country. The headlines about Northern Ireland's Troubles were nearly always like that in those days. I was enjoying  the flight and was not in the mood for such discussion.

We passed the popular seaside town of Youghal with its long beach and caravan parks. Smoke from a few fires drifted vertically upwards before spreading horizontally; a very calm evening. Then, as the famous Midleton Distillery appeared, the stewardess issued the pre-landing instructions and commenced her inspection tour down the centre aisle, checking that our safety belts were fastened. 

As the eastern suburbs of the city of Cork came into view a ripple of anxiety seemed to spread along the seats on my side of the aircraft. I heard the word 'smoke' gasped several times. Some seat-belts were again released along the opposite side of the aisle as the occupants crossed to my side and, stooping low to peer out at the the cause of the sudden anxiety.

'Please return to your seats and fasten your safety belts immediately!' shouted the stewardess. 

'But the smoke! All that smoke!' someone shouted back.

The stewardess was about to lean across me for a look through my window when a woman passenger began to scream, 'Don't land! Don't land! Tell the pilot to turn back! Tell him now! Please don't land!'

The stewardess vanished rapidly in the direction of the cockpit. I heard the undercarriage go down. Through the elliptical window numerous columns of dense smoke could be seen rising vertically into the clear calm sky from every area of Cork city. Angry, orange-yellow flames flickered at the base of most of the black, writhing pillars. 

The public address system crackled and a man cleared his throat.
'This is your captain speaking. We are making our final approach to Cork Airport.  Welcome to Cork on this, the 23rd of June, St. John's night. Tonight is bonfire night all over Ireland.'

Grinning sheepishly, the red-faced stewardess emerged from the cockpit, sat on her seat and continued to grin as she secured her own belt mere seconds before the wheels touched the concrete of runway 35. 

Was I worried on seeing the pillars of smoke? Not in the slightest. 

I was returning to my home in Cork city from a one-day business trip. For at least a week previously boys from 8 to 18 had been dragging wooden pallets, old car tyres, odd planks and discarded (?) furniture past our gate. 'Anything for our bonfire, Sir?'

Two days before my visit to London one of our fine trees had been roughly deprived of a few substantial lower branches by persons unknown. I had also been obliged to systematically excavate and rescue various personal items of some value from the growing combustible pile that had materialised in a corner of the garden. No doubt our own three young pyromaniacs would be awaiting my homecoming impatiently. It would be my paternal duty to perform the formal ignition ceremony and send another column of smoke skywards in honour of St. John and add to the terror of yet more unenlightened incoming airline passengers.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Waiting for a Train

An invalid's bedroom overlooked by the railway, so near, so far, so hopeless.

by Victor Sullivan
© Victor Sullivan 1970

The rattle of the approaching bicycle at last; the squeal of that gate-hinge followed by the gate-latch snapping shut again.  Agnes lay helpless in her still-clean bed and mentally followed her aging sister Kitty's progress to the bicycle shed, then the characteristic sounds of the back door opening — closing and finally other faint, familiar sounds from downstairs.  How long to wait before Kitty took it into her head to climb those stairs and deliver her thirty seconds of local news summary or whatever condensed gossip she had picked up in the course of her morning visit to the shops... or was it the Post Office...  Whatever it might be, it was from Outside and that was all that mattered. Were it not for Kitty who else would be there to care for her in her utter helplessness. Kitty had no life of her own other than caring relentlessly for her bed-bound sister and Agnes sensed her sister's resentment of the situation with each grunt as Kitty climbed the stairs. Kitty was her only link with Outside. Ever since poor old Breda Kelly died nobody else from Outside ever came to the house apart from the doctor. Breda, Babbling Breda... how she could spread gossip!  Oh God how she missed Breda... Breda from Outside...  seven years without Babbling Breda from Outside. Seven years without keeping up with everything going on Outside. Oh Kitty brought her the newspapers, but they never reported what went on just down the road. Ever since Breda died any news about Outside was always filtered dry and abbreviated into dust by Kitty. Kitty had a way of never speaking a sentence if a syllable would suffice. 

The house was right beside the metal railway bridge that spanned the main road leading to the town. As each train growled its way to or from the town's train station, its wheels, running past just a little higher than her bedroom window, created a hollow rumble as they crossed over the roadway. Every week-day the driver of the 11:35 goods train, dressed in his coal-smudged pale blue overalls, leaned from the side of his black steam locomotive number 241 and seemed to stare straight towards her window and wave a greasy hand. Could he see her in her bed? Could he really? She hoped he could. Agnes always waved back, even on her bad days. He was Outside. He was her independent connection with Outside. Kitty had said he was only waving at children on the road below the bridge... perhaps he was... But every day? During school-time? The alarm clock on her bedside table was set to go off at 11:30 in case she might fall asleep and miss the morning wave from Outside. 

The stairs creaked once, twice, then the landing floor-board creaked to the accompaniment of one final grunt and the bedroom door opened. Kitty stood just inside the large bedroom, breathing heavily.
     "Any news in town?"
     "None as makes any difference, not to us anyway."
     "Anyone dead?"
     "None that I heard of."
     "The town is quiet so?"
     "Very quiet.  I brought you these. They were new in the shop."
Kitty held up a brown paper bag and took a step towards her invalid sister, Agnes, who managed to find the strength to raise one hand towards the offered surprise.
     "That was nice of you, Kitty. What___KITTY!! What's the matter Kitty?" Agnes's weak voice croaked a scream as her elderly sister suddenly yelped with pain, dropped the bag and seemed to hug herself violently.  Helpless, Agnes watched her sister sway about crazily, her gasping mouth open and eyes staring like those of some demented beast. Then and with a horrible choking gurgle, Kitty crashed onto the floor beside the bed  writhing in her agony, her hideous noises being finally drowned by the rumble of the long, slow, 11:35 freight train passing over the bridge outside the bedroom window.
     "KITTY___KITTY!! Oh my God Kitty! What's happened to you, Kitty.  Oh Kitteeeee!"
Then there was silence in the room. Silence, broken only by a few plaintive calls of, "Kitty?" until the next train passed, after which the silence came back and with it came the fear and the increasing awareness of everything horrible until the next train passed and the silence and the fear and the awareness and the tears and the terror began again and continued until the next train, and the next... and the next ... it grew dark, a few trains passed in the night, a night of hunger and no bed-pan no matter how loudly she called Kitty. When it grew light again she thought of tea... and food... and the bed-pan but that didn't matter anymore... then the early morning trains passed... soon it would be time to wave at the 11:35  goods train, her only Outside hope but it would require more than a wave this morning. When the alarm clock on the bedside table indicated 11:30 Agnes reached out a feeble hand and grasped it. She knew she had only five minutes more to wait before HIS train would pass. The knuckles of her scrawny hand whitened as she gripped the ticking alarm clock. It would have to work. Her life, such as it was, depended on it. The rumble of the train...  Agnes drew her arm back... God! She was hungry!

James Manley drove locomotive 241 and its train of goods wagons over the bridge and for once he neglected to wave at the shadowy person in the bed who could always be seen dimly through the window.  He had been waving at whoever it was for many years, never quite certain if the bedridden figure was male or female, not that it mattered. Whenever he waved, the wave was weakly reciprocated. The waving had become a habit, like his shouting at the dog that chased his locomotive at the other side of town. Today, waving had been overlooked as he had much on his mind. Happy thoughts, worrying thoughts, planning, trying to remember things he felt sure might have been overlooked. James was getting married on Saturday and as soon as he reached the terminus old 241 would have to find another driver for two weeks.

Thanks to a round of holiday relief duties on other routes, James Manley was not reunited with 241 for another three weeks in addition to his honeymoon break. When eventually reunited, the locomotive was just the same, same troubles, same noises, same smell, same fireman, same route, same dog chasing 241, same bridge over the main road, same waving hand... or was it? Perhaps not today, he hadn't been really concentrating.
On the following day as 241 approached the bridge he picked up a cleaning rag to wave with but received no response. He could barely make out something white lying at an angle inside the room. Later that day he began to question what he had seen. He would look more carefully.
The next time he approached the bridge his hand reached for the regulator and slowed 241 to a crawl. There was nothing to see. Just the house. No wave, just the faintest shadowy image of something grey inside the window, something lying at an angle. Some instinct told him all was not well. While stopped at the nearby train station he telephoned the local police and persuaded them to investigate.

The policeman cycled to the house by the railway bridge and knocked on the front door. Receiving no reply he peered through the downstairs windows. No sign of life apart from bluebottles swarming against the glass. Wisely, he decided he needed assistance and went to fetch it. 

Two decomposing bodies were found in an upstairs bedroom. One in a foetal position on the floor the other half in and half out of the bed. They had been visited by rats. Also on the floor was a paper bag containing some shriveled plums. Near the window lay hundreds of dead flies and an alarm clock that had stopped at 11:35. Agnes did not have enough strength to smash the window with the clock as 241 passed by.

Over sixty years later that house became the headquarters of an industrial computer enterprise. From the window of my comfortable office I could watch trains rumble over the bridge and sometimes I exchanged a wave with the train-driver. Yes, it really was the same room.
© Victor Sullivan, 2012