It was the worst-ever air disaster in Pakistan’s history. On the morning of 28th July 2010, Airblue flight Ed-202 took off as scheduled from Karachi’s Jinnah international airport, heading to Islamabad. It never reached its destination. Instead, the ill-fated Airbus A321 crashed into the fog-shrouded Margalla hills, killing all aboard.
Families were shattered, and a nation mourned the loss of so many lives in a single, tragic moment. For days and weeks, , the cause of the crash was hotly debated in print and on TV as expert after expert weighed in on what they thought had happened. Soon after the disaster, interior minister Rehman Malik promised a full investigation, a claim that was repeated by government officials time and again. A full report would be issued they said.
But over a year later, the questions of families of the victims – questions that an entire nation is awaiting answers for – have been met with silence.
So what happened to the much-awaited report?
Air Commodore Abdul Majeed, President of the Civil Aviation Agency’s Safety Investigation Board and head of the investigation team which compiled the report on the Air Blue crash says the report has been sent to the Ministry of Defence.
“After collecting evidence, a seven-member team compiled the investigation report, but its findings couldn’t be made public yet,” he said. CAA spokesperson Pervez George adds, “We have done our work. Now, the ball is in the Defence Ministry’s court.”
Defence Ministry officials admit that the CAA, after finalizing the inquiry report, handed it over to Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar some two and a half months back, after which the Defence Ministry made its own additions to the report.
Mukhtar, for his part, says the same report will be duly handed over to the Prime Minister. However, in a meeting with Premier Gilani, Mukhtar reportedly warned him about the possibility of a serious backlash and ‘negative consequences’ if the report was made public. Interestingly, Mukhtar also warned the Prime Minister that releasing the report would lead to more conspiracy theories – as if keeping the report secret would not have the exact same effect. Thus far, conspiracy theories are all the public has had: from claims that the plane was headed to Kahuta to even wilder theories about Blackwater and terrorism.
So what could be the reason for keeping the report under wraps? A senior official of the Prime Minister House, speaking on condition of anonymity, has an explanation to offer. He says that if the negligence of the operator or the concerned authorities is clearly established in the report, then the compensation amount would increase manifold. “Perhaps it is due to this reason in the last 60 years that no investigation report has been made public in Pakistan,” he says.
Privately, officials of the CAA, the Ministry of Defence, the Pakistan Navy and the Pakistan Air Force say that the report on the incident will indeed be handed over to the Prime Minister within two months. “After that point,” says a spokesperson of the Defence Ministry, “Gilani will be the ultimate authority who decides whether the report is made public or not.”
For several weeks, The Express Tribune has tried to get official statements from the Defence Minister and other concerned officials as to why the mystery has lasted for so long, but all inquiries have been met with silence. The issue is too ‘sensitive’ to discuss, they say.
Is this how air crash investigations are meant to be carried out?
A CAA expert told The Express Tribune that air crash accidents are investigated under the Rules & Regulations of the Chicago Convention of 1944. Usually, an independent accident investigation body is constituted, such as the National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) in the United States of America. Manufacturers of the aircraft and its various components are usually entitled to act as observers and the draft report may also be shared with them for comments. Quoting some past examples, he said that first interim reports are issued followed by a final one. For example, the details of the investigation of Air France Flight 447 which crashed in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 Paris can be found on the website of the French Bureau d’Enquetes et d’Analyse (BEA), he added.
The BEA is also the same body that was approached for decoding the black box of flight Ed-202. A Pakistani team headed by Air Commodore Abdul Majeed had visited Paris for this purpose last year. The sole objective of the technical investigation is to collect and analyse useful information, to determine the circumstances and the certain or possible causes of the accident or incident. However, CAA officials are tight-lipped about the BEA’s findings, which we know have been handed over to them and included in the final report which was submitted to the Ministry. Officials of the Defence Ministry, including Minister Ahmed Mukhtar did not speak on the issue saying, “Please give us sometime to compile the findings first. Then, we will speak on the issue and share some findings.”
No answers, only anger
For the families of the victims of the crash, that is cold comfort indeed. In the absence of answers, they have only anger.
“We have lost all hope,” says Colonel Shafiq, whose young son lost his life in the crash. “Airblue and the bureaucracy have managed to hoodwink all those institutions that were supposed to be providing us justice,” he says with obvious anger in his voice. Col Shafiq claims that Airblue is trying to hush up the matter by blaming the pilot, a man who cannot defend himself. How could a man with forty years of flying experience make such a fatal mistake, he asks? Grasping for answers he questions why the plane instruments didn’t warn the pilot of the proximity of the ground. He wonders out loud if the airline ordered the pilot to continue in bad weather rather than diverting the flight, which would have led to increased costs for the airline. He has many questions, but in the absence of answers, all he can do is lay blame.
And there is plenty of blame to go around. Eight members of Muhammad Zaman’s family were on board the flight when it crashed. In a tragic irony, they had been en route to Abbotabad to attend the funeral of a relative. For Muhammad Zaman, it is the pilot who is most likely at fault.
“The pilot was fatigued as he had been up the entire night of Shab-e-Barat, despite having received the mandatory twelve-hour warning that he had to fly the next day,” he claims.
For Syed Qaiser Zulfiqar, whose little brother Syed Haider Zulfiqar lost his life in this crash, the governments’ seeming apathy is a call to arms. Along with other victims’ family members, Zulfiqar has joined an association named the Air Blue Crash Affectees Group (ACAG) in an effort to seek justice, and get answers.
“The system in our country is hopeless,” says Zulfiqar. “We have launched our struggle to change the course of aviation history in Pakistan. We are demanding the publication of the investigation reports and the DNA test reports and inshallah we will succeed,” he says with conviction.
Regardless of how they deal with their grief, the victims’ family members are nearly unanimous when it comes to condemning the handling of the crash by both Airblue and the government.
They say no transport facilities were provided to the affected families to reach the crash site or even to transport the dead bodies to their final abode. The inefficiency and apathy of the authorities was such that a Pakistan International Airlines flight in which the kith and kin of 12 victims were being transported to Karachi remained stranded at Islamabad Airport for over ten hours, recalled a relative of Ajmal Khan, who lost his life in this crash.
Others have even more harrowing tales to tell. “In my case, even after the recovery of his NIC, driving license, ATM card, E-ticket and baggage tag, the corpse of my son Hassan Adeel was declared unidentified and his belongings were pillaged,” says Col (Retd) Shamim.
Nor was there any control over looting and pilferage at the crash site itself. Unconfirmed reports and rumours have it that the lower staff of Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) did not even hesitate from fleecing the families of some victims on the pretext of paying the cost of coffin boxes, Shamim added.
Compensation, confusion and controversy
Initially, three separate compensations were announced for the victims’ families. One was by the government on the eve of July 28, 2010, amounting to Rs 0.5 million each. The second was the interim relief announced by Airblue and then the final compensation of Rs five million by Airblue.
In all, Airblue has paid Rs 550,000 to all 146 families as an interim relief. More than fifty families also accepted Rs five million offered by Airblue as final compensation but the rest went to the court to get compensation in accordance with international laws. Regarding the compensation announced by the Prime Minister, only the families of some 48 victims have been paid so far. Families of the victims claims that the government has imposed restrictions on the submission of succession certificate for claiming this amount, which is a lengthy legal process and many families have simply not been able to complete it.
“I know of a family which lost eight relatives in the accident and the court is demanding a surety bond to the tune of Rs40 million to issue the succession certificate. It is also worth checking how true it is that the government and Air Blue have divided the inbuilt insurance of Rs1million among themselves rather than paying it from their own exchequer,” says Syed Ali, a victim’s relative.
Last year, bereaved families knocked on the doors of the Supreme Court of Pakistan requesting the Chief Justice to take suo moto notice of the accident, and ensure an independent and transparent investigation. Some affected persons also filed a suit in the Sindh High Court (SHC) for holding an independent and transparent investigation, following which the federation’s assured the court that the government will ensure a fair investigation. Disposing of the suit, the SHC in its judgment on Oct 25, 2010 directed the government to complete the investigation and submit report within two months. It is now July 2011 and no report has been submitted.
Former MNA Marvi Memon took up the cause of the bereaved families and raised the issue on the floor of the National Assembly. She also filed a suit with the Peshawar High Court on December 2010, requesting for an independent and transparent investigation and the subsequent publication of the report. This court also directed the authorities to submit the report forthwith after which the court would decide what contents to make public and then fix the next date for hearing. “The publication of this report will give the victims’ families hope for justice,” says Ms Memon.
But thus far that hope has remained unfulfilled. The court orders have been seemingly ignored and no answers are forthcoming from either the government or Airblue as to the cause of the crash. In desperation, aggrieved families looked towards the Parliament and submitted a petition to the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Human Rights in June 2011, requesting for an independent and transparent investigation and a public report. The Committee summoned the then Additional Secretary Defense Syed Athar Ali and Director General CAA Nadeem Yousufzai on June 29, 2011. Additional Secretary Defense Rear Admiral Shah Sohail informed the Committee that the investigation has been completed and that action on the report will be taken as it is presented to the Prime Minister. “I directed the official concerned to submit a copy of report to the committee weeks back but they have not submitted the report yet,” says Riaz Fatiyana, chairman of the committee, “but I will continue to fight for rights of victim families until the last moment.” He claims the CAA officials will submit their final report to the committee by August 14.
But as they wait, the families of the victims wonder if this too will be yet another unfulfilled promise. The ball is now in the Prime Minister’s court, and it remains to be seen if the truth will ever be revealed.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 31st, 2011.