London One of the worst aviation disasters in history killed 329 people - about 280 of them Canadians - as an Air India Boeing 747 jetliner crashed into the North Atlantic off Ireland yesterday.
As Canada's Indian community grappled with the tragedy, and rescue teams pulled bodies and debris from the ocean, sabotage appeared to be the most likely cause for the worst aviation disaster ever involving Canadians.
A person identifying himself as a member of a radical faction of the All-India Sikh Student Federation, which was banned in India until recently, claimed responsibility for blowing up the plane in a phone call to The New York Times yesterday about 2:45 p.m. He said it was to protest against "Hindu imperialism." Later, an anonymous caller claiming to represent the Kashmir Liberation Army called the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in Toronto to claim responsibility, the network said.
Suspecting sabotage, Ottawa already had moved to tighten security at Canadian airports. Transport Minister Donald Mazankowski ordered more extensive security checks for all departing international flights and asked other nations to strengthen security measures on flights bound for Canada.
Sean Brady, a spokesman for the Department of External Affairs, said the possibility of a link between the crash and the explosion of baggage taken off a Canadian plane in Tokyo yesterday is being examined, "given their coincidence in terms of date. Certainly people are looking at the possibility of a connection between the two incidents." "The scenario screams out that it was a bomb," David Learmont, Flight International Magazine's air transport editor, said in London. "It could have been some sort of freak turbulence . . . but it would be highly unlikely." Because debris was spread over an eight-kilometre swath and because there was no message from the crew, who would only have had to hit a Mayday button to signal an emergency, credence was lent to the sabotage theory.
By all accounts, the departure of Flight 182 from Toronto on Saturday night was normal. About 180 passengers, nearly all natives of India, went through special security searches specified for Air India flights following a request from the Indian High Commission, but the mood was cheerful. This was a holiday crowd, including many families - there were reported to be 86 children aboard - heading to their homeland for a vacation.
The plane took off for Montreal, where 103 more passengers boarded. The next stop, in 6 1/2 hours, was to be London's Heathrow Airport. The flight was scheduled to arrive in Bombay nine hours out of Heathrow.
Three bags were held back by security personnel in Montreal, but the plane, under the command of 56-year-old pilot H. S. Narendra, a 35-year veteran with more than 10,000 hours' flight time, took off normally.
Shortly after 3 a.m. EDT yesterday, the flight crew radioed Ireland's Shannon airport to report the plane was at 9,400 metres and needed a routing to Heathrow. It was a brief, routine conversation.
Six minutes later, at 3:13 a.m., Flight 182, with 307 passengers and 22 crew members on board, "dropped like a stone" about 9,450 metres, according to one controller.
The blip disappeared from Shannon's radar screens. An emergency location transmitter - triggered by contact with water or land - beeped for a short time.
The controllers asked a Trans World Airways aircraft, flying 600 metres above and slightly behind Flight 182, to try to find the doomed jet, but visibility was not good enough. Winds were at force four, with four-metre seas, and visibility was about six kilometres.
About 90 minutes later a Royal Air Force Nimrod reported it had sighted wreckage, including life rafts that were not inflated, but no survivors.
Search and rescue aircraft and ships raced to the scene, but all that was left for them was the grisly task of collecting the bodies under a pelting rain. When the search was suspended at nightfall, about 15 hours after the crash, 123 bodies had been recovered. Most were delivered by helicopter to Cork, 290 kilometres from the crash site, and the rest were put on board ships.
Authorities have pinpointed Flight 182's flight recorder, but it is not yet clear how easily it can be recovered from its position 670 metres below the surface.
Three U.S. air force helicopters were to join the search when it resumed early today.
Even before the Sikh group claimed responsibility, the Indian Government indicated it believed sabotage might have been involved, and last night it asked the Japanese Government for information about the bomb incident in Tokyo.
Civil Aviation Minister Ashok Gehlot pointed out that the wreckage was widespread, and speculated that the incident involving the CP Air flight to Tokyo might have been connected to the Air India crash.
Mr. Gehlot noted that police in several countries were investigating the possibility of a connection between the ''two explosions,'' and said that his country - which has the primary responsibility for investigating the crash - would be ''actively pursuing this line of inquiry.'' Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi has set up a judicial inquiry into the disaster, and a team of officials has been dispatched to Ireland.
Airline officials have acknowledged that Air India has received numerous threats to its aircraft during the past few months. Most were related to the political troubles in the northern state of Punjab, where some members of the majority Sikh community seek creation of an autonomous state.
Mr. Brady of External Affairs said the Indian High Commission informed the department last month that it was concerned about the safety of Indian diplomats and Air India flights and that security had been tightened.
There was a "significant upgrading of protection" for both diplomats and all Air India flights originating in Canada, and those provisions have been under review ever since, Mr. Brady said.
Meanwhile, for the 200,000 people in Canada's Indian community, shocked horror was the response. Memorial services were held in temples across the country as families anxiously awaited news. In Bombay, hundreds of people waited for a flight that would never arrive.
Air India will transport relatives to London on a flight leaving tomorrow afternoon to help in the identification of bodies.
Official condolences were offered to relatives of the victims by the Queen and politicians in both Canada and India.
In Montreal, the three bags taken from the flight after they set off alarms on electronic security devices were finally examined yesterday afternoon, and were found to contain nothing more dangerous than a travel iron and a portable radio.
If it is ascertained that the plane was blown out of the sky by a bomb, it will count as the worst air disaster by violent means. To date, that frightening distinction has been held by Korean Air Lines Flight 007, shot down by a Soviet fighter in September, 1983. All 269 people aboard, including 10 from Canada, were killed.
In Montreal, Air India manager Derek Menezes reported that 279 of the 307 passengers aboard Flight 182 carried Canadian passports. There were also 22 crew members, most of whom held Indian passports.
Rescue operations were being co- ordinated at the British Ministry of Defence's large operations centre in Plymouth. Ministry spokesman D. P. Hill said in London that in addition to five Sea King helicopters and two RAF Nimrod surveillance planes from Plymouth, the Irish Navy had dispatched two ships, which were working with local vessels already in the area.
The rescue centre in Plymouth responded to the distress signals in just under 20 minutes with the initial flights. Staff members John Fraser and Colin MacKenzie and Victor Malarek and Theresa Ted and Zuhair Kashmeri and Matthew Fisher , and wire services, contributed to this report.