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Monday, 19 October 2015

The final journey...

I clearly remember the last time we saw Dad. It was on the evening of the 16th October, 1988. It was a Sunday and he was scheduled to leave for a work trip. We were all gathered in the front lawn of our campus home, no. 316. One of IIM-A's olive-green ambassador cars had come to pick him up. He gave me a kiss and all of us waved him goodbye as the car sped away. I immediately started clinging to Mum, demanding attention.

LRB was flying to Bombay, and then onwards to Pune to meet with S.L. 'Dada' Kirloskar, the 85 year old chairman of the engineering company, Kirloskar Brothers. The company had just turned around after facing a major set of crises in the past few years, and its leadership was looking to put together a strategy that would put the company on a growth path. They had requested LRB to advise them as a consultant. LRB, however, was very busy at the time and was not in a position to take on additional work. He tried to politely decline, but Mr. Kirloskar called personally and insisted that he visit, even offering to send his personal helicopter to pick LRB up. An embarrassed LRB decided that he couldn't decline an invitation from someone of Mr. Kirloskar's seniority and eminence. He would make the trip and decline in person, rather than over the phone. LRB arrived in Pune on Monday the 17th and met the Kirsloskar management at their offices. While in town, he also seems to have stopped by at the Bajaj Auto headquarters. Bajaj was another consulting client he was advising on their marketing and corporate strategy.

On the 18th of October, he was back in Bombay and from all accounts had another busy day. He was meeting with marketing executives at Cadbury India, one of his newer consulting clients. Cadbury had recently engaged LRB as a consultant to help them develop a marketing strategy that would help accelerate the profitability of their brands. Vinita Bali, who was then a young marketing manager at Cadbury remembers the day: "We worked late that evening, combing through all kinds of consumer and market data. It was at an early stage of the consultation and I remember being fascinated by his approach and his unique ability to probe and generate insights that the rest of us would have struggled to find. He was curious about how these brands were marketed in other countries. I had returned from my stint in the UK and I remember we spent long hours talking about the relevance of the category in India versus the UK, and what were the drivers and differentiators for consumers in these markets."

Shyam Sunder Suri, LRB's friend and partner in his consulting activities, had also asked to meet LRB that day. They had together planned LRB's annual product-policy training programme for marketing executives which was scheduled to be held in Goa in November, and Mr. Suri wanted to discuss the logistics and scheduling for the programme. LRB had initially planned on returning to Ahmedabad by the evening flight, but wasn't sure if his meetings would be done in time for that. He was also beginning to feel a little tired. They kept in touch over the phone during the day and, finally, in the afternoon, LRB called to tell him that he had decided to stay the night. He would be staying at the Centaur Hotel at Santa Cruz and they could meet for dinner. LRB also made a call to his old friend,  Shunu Sen of HLL. They talked in detail about the upcoming programme at Goa where LRB had invited Sen to speak. 

At some point during the day, Dad had found time to pick up an action figure for us - Skeletor, the skull-faced chief villain from the He-Man series, which I was crazy about. In the evening, he called us in Ahmedabad. He told Mum that he'd be staying back for the night and asked her to call Shekhar Vyas and cancel their meeting for that evening. He also said that he wasn't feeling well, and that he would get a proper check-up once he was back. I spoke to him as well. He told me, with relish, mimicking a dramatic, menacing voice, that he was bringing Skeletor with him. I heard this and ran off, all excited, now waiting desperately to see him the next day. 

Back in Bombay,  Shyam Sunder Suri met LRB for dinner. He remembers the evening: "We met in his room and then went for dinner. Labdhi's favourite cuisine was Chinese - especially his all-time favourite - golden fried prawns. He had those, fried rice, some noodles and brandy with hot water - which he preferred because of his chronic throat/sinus/cold problems. We discussed the logistics of the upcoming product policy training programme - how many people were expected, the scheduling, etc. He wasn't sure whether he would be coming alone or with his wife, or if the whole family would accompany him. Later, he mentioned that he had been spoken to at IIM-A about taking up the Director's position and he was ruminating over whether he should. I told him that he should give it a go and IIM-A needed leaders like him. That evening, Labdhi described to me what he would be interested in doing if he took it up - he said he would want to take IIM-A international and get foreign faculty, etc. We were together till midnight"

***

Next morning LRB would have been up early. His flight, Indian Airlines IC-113, was scheduled to depart at 5.45 am, and as was usual for him, he left the hotel very late, probably arriving at the airport just in the nick of time before the check-in counter closed. At the airport, he ran into people he knew. K. Raghuram, a former student, was headed to Pune: "I chatted briefly with Prof. Bhandari in the Mumbai airport security area, just before the boarding announcements. He was catching the Ahmedabad flight at the same time that I was boarding the Pune one. My old “dry-mouth disease” from his classes promptly returned and we wouldn’t have progressed much beyond the “Hellos” were it not for my colleague, who, being unaware of his reputation, had tried to impress him by waxing eloquent about some marketing initiative we had started. All I remember is that grin lighting up Prof. Bhandari’s face as he asked a couple of gentle, but pointed questions. My colleague was saved by the boarding calls." LRB also ran into Anita Ramachandran, then working with AF Fergusson & Co. in Pune, who was taking an early morning flight to Delhi. She had been interacting with LRB to get him to do some consulting work for one of her clients, the Pune-based Kinetic Engineering Company: "I too was scheduled to go to Ahmedabad on the same flight as Labdhi and had it changed the previous night to Delhi. I met Labdhi that morning minutes before he boarded -- and I will never forget that. We spoke of setting up a meeting in Pune and the pain of the early morning flights." 

It turned out that the flight had been delayed by 20 minutes after a booked passenger did not show. It departed, eventually, at 6.05 am. The aircraft, an aging Boeing 737, was piloted that day by Captain O.M. Dalaya, a 37-year old pilot who had only been given command of a Boeing jet 13 months ago, having spent his early career flying Fokker Friendship turboprops, and the previous 5 years co-piloting 737s. He had less than 1800 hours of flight experience with a Boeing jet. To add to that, Capt. Dalaya had slept fitfully the previous night, waking up at one point feeling cold and with night sweats. He reported to work at 5.00 am that day, and was probably sleep deprived. He was joined in the cockpit by the 26-year old co-pilot, Deepak Nagpal, who had even less experience, having been endorsed as a Boeing co-pilot only 5 months ago. He had co-piloted Boeing jets for less than 180 hours previously. The crew's inexperience would be an important factor in what happened to this flight.

The flight proceeded smoothly till they started to descend near Ahmedabad. At 6.25 am, the Ahmedabad Air Traffic Control's approach controller called and gave them updated weather information. Visibility had dropped from 6 km an hour ago to 3 km. At 6.32 am, the crew were given permission to descend to 15,000 feet. As the pilots engaged in small talk in the midst of their descent, the cockpit voice recorder captured their conversations. Capt. Dalaya revealed that he hadn't been feeling well and had slept fitfully: "Waise, I am not well aur zyada lagta hai. Raat ko I was sweating and suddenly got cold. Neend aa rahee thee, jaa rahee thee. Hota hai na? Theek hai, badh gaya to kuch kar loonga."

At 6.42 am, Ahmedabad ATC called in again with a special weather report. Visibility had dropped by another km and was now 2 km. But, this number was misleading. It was a quick-and-dirty estimation made by BJ Alika, the senior meteorological observer on duty at Ahmedabad airport that day. He had stepped out of his office and spotted the Maya Cinema, which was about 2.2 km away from the terminal building, through the haze.** In reality, the visibility near the end of the runway in the approach sector was worse, and deteriorating. A witness, Pratapji Ramsinhji Thakore, who was working in the fields near the end of the runway would report that the fog was very dense and that he "could not see beyond 5 feet." Later, in court under cross examination, BJ Alika would admit that visibility had been consistently deteriorating. Under these circumstances, the appropriate way to determine visibility would have been to make a measurement called the Runway visual range (RVR). This involved someone driving down to the end of the runway, standing on the vehicle and counting the number of runway lights that were actually visible through the haze. The RVR provides an approach-specific visibility measurement, telling the pilots how early during their approach would they be likely to see the runway. The RVR would have revealed the poorer visibility in the approach sector. At Ahmedabad Airport, BJ Alika would only do an RVR if the Air Traffic Controllers requested one, and if they could provide him with a transport vehicle to the end of the runway. The ATC never requested one, and BJ Alika did not insist. In the end, despite the meteorologist and the controllers being aware of the worsening conditions, they neglected to give this information to the pilots. Instead, the report would include a crucial, misleading phrase: no sig, which meant that no significant change was expected in the next 2 hours.

Capt. Dalaya went by the 2 km visibility determination and decided that he could manage a landing easily. He called the cabin crew and asked them to prepare for landing. An air-hostess made the announcement and the seat-belt sign switched on. A minute later, at 6.43 am, the pilots and the passengers would find themselves in the thick of the fog, with visibility much less than they expected. Seated at the rear of the aircraft, passenger Vinod Tripathi remembered later that he couldn't see anything through the fog outside. The cockpit voice recorder captured the pilot's irritation.


Dalaya to Nagpal: Neeche nazar aa jaye to bata dena. (Tell me if you see the ground.)

Dalaya to Nagpal: Kya hai? (What do you see?) 

Nagpal: Solid bad, sir.

Dalaya: Bada hi bekaar weather hai. (It's really bad weather.) 


Despite the weather, as long as the pilots followed procedure, there was nothing to worry about. Capt. Dalaya could use available guidance instruments to appropriately align the aircraft and then approach at a safe height till the runway came into view. Using the guidance instruments available at Ahmedabad airport, Capt. Dalaya first reported overhead, then executed a standard procedure-turn, going outbound and then turning back inbound, aligning his aircraft with the runway centre line. He still could not see the runway so, as he closed in, he asked co-pilot Nagpal to look for it. Desperate to spot the runway, however, they lost track of their altitude, which was fast dropping. They reached 600 ft above ground level, and initially Capt. Dalaya maintained it for 10 seconds. But, then, he seemed to have lost awareness of his altitude. Indeed the pilots had neglected to make standard altitude call-outs. They crossed the 500 ft minimum decision altitude, which you are meant to hold until you can spot the runway and have clearance to land. 15 seconds before the crash, the co-pilot says "approach aa rahee hai" and recommended letting down the landing flaps. The pilot did so. It was their final action. Suddenly, Vinod Tripathi, seated at the rear got worried when he felt the aircraft sink rapidly. Seconds later, the Cockpit Voice Recorder captured a loud thud, followed by a piercing scream. 

The Boeing had brushed against the top of two babul trees in a paddy field near Pratapji Ramsinhji Thakore's home. The field was just 2500 meters short of the runway - a distance they would have covered in less than 30 seconds if they were at a slightly higher altitude. It then slammed into a field, crushing the landing gear and its belly in the process, and continued dragging for about 500 yards as a fire started. A wing scythed against another tree and the tail section and the cockpit separated from the middle portion of the fuselage which continued dragging and jumped over a mud-wall, slammed into a high-tension electrical wire and exploded into flames. Vinod Tripathi heard the explosion and found himself upside down. There was fire all around and he felt his seat belt was burning. He ripped it off and ran away from the wreckage, as fast he could. The main fuselage and the people inside were completely consumed by the fire. Pratapji Thakore and other fellow-villagers lifted survivors out from the rear section and away from the flames. LRB must have been in that rear section that separated, because unlike many of the other passengers, he did not suffer burns. He did suffer many internal injuries though - a lacerated lung, ruptured organs and broken bones. He is believed to have survived the crash and died on the way to the hospital. 

At the Ahmedabad ATC, the flight had disappeared from radar and the controllers had reported it missing. At 7.13, however, they received a call from the City Police control room. Pratapji Thakore and other villagers had rushed over to the Noble Nagar police station and reported the crash. The station had, in turn, relayed the information onto the control room and the fire brigade. As the news spread, the airport descended into chaos. One of LRB's colleagues, Prof. V. Raghunathan, remembers the scene "I was returning from Chennai and when I landed at the Ahmedabad Airport, the scene was completely chaotic as the crash had happened barely 60 minutes ago. Everybody was rushing out of the airport towards the accident site. I came across an old student (Subramaniam Sharma) who was the first one to tell me that Prof. Bhandari was on board. He had seen the driver who had come to pick him up with his name placard."

***

One of IIM-A's cars had gone to pick Dad up at the airport. It was a Wednesday, and school started early for us that day - at 8.00 am. Anupam was part of the school choir and they used to sing a hymn on Wednesdays before the morning prayers. So, we were meant to leave early, before Dad got home. Anticipating a new toy, I wouldn't have been very happy about this state of affairs and successfully pestered Mum into letting me skip school. Anupam, and our elder cousin Leena who was also staying with us, both left for school.

Also at home that day was Kuldeep Uncle, Dad's youngest brother, who was visiting from Jodhpur. As the flight's arrival time neared, Kuldeep Uncle and I remember Mum calling Indian Airlines to ask if the flight was on time. I remember her slamming the light blue receiver of the phone down, walking out to the living room and collapsing on the sofa. I remember her starting to cry. I remember both of us trying to console Mum. Kuldeep Uncle called Indian Airlines again - this time they said that the flight had a snag and had turned back to Bombay. He asked Mum to let him take the trip to the airpot and find out first hand.

He remembers: "I walked to the campus gate and took an auto rickshaw to the airport. It felt like my longest journey ever. On reaching the airport, I gave the driver a 100 rupee note and went in to inquire. I found that the plane had indeed crashed before landing, and that I should go to civil hospital to find out more details. The same auto rickshaw took me to civil hospital from the airport. He dropped me right at the spot where the ambulances were coming in. I had no money to pay the auto driver and he said he did not need any."

"I saw the ambulances coming in and the hospital staff pulling out stretchers with bodies and taking them inside the building. I went inside and saw the dead being laid out on the floor in rows. There were charred bodies as well and place was getting slowly crowded. I was trying to deal with the shock, grief and numbness and think about what needed to be done. I could not see the body of my brother and was feeling a ray of hope. I inquired and learnt that those who have survived were being treated in a different building. I went out, trying to find this place and if someone had a list of names of those who had survived*** and were being treated. I spent some time moving around other parts of the hospital, but in vain – I could not find any details of the survivor."

Meanwhile, Anupam was at school: "I clearly remember the hymn we sang that day: 'Lord we pray for golden peace...peace all over the land..may all men dwell in liberty..walking hand in hand.' After the prayers and in the first or second period in school, I was asked to go to the principal's office with my bag. When I packed my stuff and reached the office, Father Charlie told me that 2 gentlemen from IIM-A had come to take me home. One of them took a motorcycle back and the other rode with me in a rickshaw. During the journey home, I asked him what had happened - multiple times - and he kept saying 'Your mother will tell you'. By the time we were passing by PRL, I had guessed it - that there was either a plane crash or a road accident. I asked him if the plane has crashed and got the same reply "Your mother will tell you". 

"When we reached home, I saw a lot of people standing outside on the road and some in the lawn. I found Shekhar Vyas in the lawn and asked what has happened - he said 'Kuch nahi beta, papa ke plane ka accident ho gaya hai'. My worst fear had came true, I rushed in the house, dumped my school bag near the phone desk and ran upstairs to find Mummy. She was sobbing and there were other people consoling her - Veena Purohit, Uma Asopa and others. Apoorva and I were asked to stay in the bedroom upstairs with Mummy and rest on the bed." 

I remember sitting on the bed in the room upstairs. My mum, in a white saree, sitting on the floor in the bedroom upstairs, surrounded by friends, neighbours and relatives, her face limp and drained, probably experiencing the confusing mix of emotion - guilt, anger, despair, numbness - that death always brings in its wake. Her mind was probably asking her that impossible question which follows every unexpected tragedy - why us? I remember my cousin watching the hectic activity, sniffling with a mix of tears and a cold. One of the ladies came in and said - he has left from Centaur hotel late, he might have missed the flight - encouraging us to keep hopes alive. I remember as Shekhar Vyas got on the phone with someone in Bombay, probably Shyam Sunder Suri, asking him to check if Dad had somehow managed to miss his flight and was still at the Centaur hotel or the airport. For, death, in its wake also brings about the clutching at straws.

***

At the Civil Hospital, Kuldeep Uncle was faced with a harrowing task..."I returned back to same building where the ambulances were bringing the dead. The place was now much more crowded. Relatives were there in large number and were crying and grief stricken. I was all alone in that big crowd. I entered the building and started looking at the bodies laid out on the floor, now many more than before, hoping not to find him here. I finally saw what I did not want to. I saw a body lying in top row which looked like that of my brother. I looked for an identifier to be sure - his hair style on face side which had a typical grey line. There were no external injury marks and except some dirt, the body, and particularly the face was relatively clean and recognizable compared to the others around. His shirt was torn and legs were a little twisted, suggesting deep injuries in the portion below his knees. Somehow, I wasn't able to accept this fact and came out of the building again went in search of the surviving people in other parts of the hospital."

"With time, I lost hope and found the courage to face reality. Again, I went back into the building and went straight to the spot where I had seen him earlier. He was there and I now started to talk to the hospital staff. I noticed that since I had first seen the body, the wallet in his pocket had gone missing. I then noticed Prof. Abhinandan Jain, a colleague of my brother, walking in the crowd. He had probably just arrived. I went to him and called him to the spot. He looked at the body and just remained silent and pressed my shoulder in consolation. That put an end to all my hopes, however false they were."

Back at home, our house filled up with neighbors and friends as the news of the crash filtered back to the institute. After a while Kuldeep Uncle called to confirm that he had been to Civil Hospital and identified the body. He was bringing the body home. Anupam remembers Mummy taking off her mangalsutra once she heard and our cousin Leena calling up relatives and informing them of LRB's death.

There was a deep sense of shock all around. A student remembers Prof. MN Vora walk into a class with moist eyes and saying that they would soon hear some shocking news. After the class was over, he couldn't contain his emotions. Nor could many of the staff and students who gathered at our place. A student journalist for the campus magazine spoke to Prof. GR Kulkarni: "What can I say? I simply loved him. He was one of my dearest friends. As a student and as a colleague, I looked upon him as one of the finest jewels. He was a younger brother. After I've heard the news this morning, I have not been able to overcome my grief."

People told me all sorts of things. Someone told me that Dad had gone to Calcutta for work instead of coming back home. Anupam's remembers telling me the truth: "My mind had gone blank and I was wondering whether to break the news to Apu. Someone said not to - but I could not resist and told him the bare truth. I remember that both of us were so blanked out that we were not even able to cry." I probably did not know what to believe. I was sent away to a friend's place. I remember the two of us playing with a red ball on his terrace when he, cruel as children are, dismissed the story I had been told and instead said, point-blank, that my Dad was dead because his plane had crashed. Unable though I was to emotionally comprehend the significance of what had happened, I was nevertheless able to ask the one question that was within my grasp: what about my Skeletor toy? I remember Anupam, eyes puffed, saying that it would have broken in the crash and then adding, with an indomitable spirit, "don't worry I'll get you a Castle Grayskull." 

Anupam remembers when they brought the coffin home: "Elders asked me to bow down - 'dhok lagao'. I remember looking at Daddy's body and bowing down to him on the bare floor. I could recognize his face - rest of the body was shrouded in white." At some point, I was called in from the back yard where I was playing with a cousin and asked to pick up a bunch of rose petals and drop them into the dark pink coffin. I couldn't see Dad at all. He was completely covered in flowers.

The next day, Mudra, then an upcoming advertising agency based in Ahmedabad employing several IIM-A alumni, brought out a full-page tribute in the Times of India. It depicted a lamp or a candle, a symbol of light, that had suddenly been extinguished. It captured the emotion felt by many of his colleagues, friends and students, of a shining star having been violently extinguished in his prime.


Notes:

*This note was written by Apoorva Bhandari based on his own memories and the testimony Anupam Bhandari, Kuldeep Bhandari, Shyam Sunder Suri, HR Bhandari, Vinita Bali, K. Raghuram, and Anita Ramachandran. The note also relies on journalist reportage of the crash, the investigation by the AK Mathur Court of Inquiry, the judgement of the Gujarat High Court in the AAI vs U.S. Shah and others appeal case, and a November 1988 issue of Synergy, the student-run campus magazine at IIM-A. 

**More than 25 years after the crash of flight IC-113, visibility measurements at the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel International Airport at Ahmedabad are still done in much the same way as they were on 19th October, 1988. To make an assessment, someone climbs up the Air Traffic Control tower and looks for familiar landmarks including the Maya Cinema or the nearby fire station. Alternatively, when possible, they drive down to the runway to count the runway lights. Unlike other major airports, the Ahmedabad International Airport's office of the Indian Meterological Department has not yet purchased or installed a scopograph - a machine that makes an automated, and standardized measurement of visibility.

***Initially, 5 people survived the crash of flight IC-113, including a 7-year old boy. In a few days, however, all but two adult men succumbed to their injuries. In all, 133 people perished, including all 6 crew members. Among the victims was flight attendant Archana Solanki, a young Dalit girl who had just finished training as a commercial pilot and was looking forward to being the first woman from her community to fly for Indian Airlines. One of the two survivors was Vinod Tripathi, then 57, who managed to run out of the wreckage amidst two explosions, suffering some burns in the process but escaping other injuries. He lived a full life and resumed his position at Gujarat Vidyapith, eventually rising to become its vice chancellor. The other survivor, Ashok Aggarwal, spent 40 days in coma before waking up to the news that his wife and one year old daughter Ruhi had perished. He has never quite recovered from the physical and psychological trauma. The issues of compensation and responsibility took 21 years to sort out in the courts, with the high court eventually apportioning 90% of the liability with the airline, and 10% with the Airports Authority of India.  

6 comments:

  1. Oh!! Apoorva,
    This is living your that phase with you and your mom and ur brother. I can hardly feel the plight confusion and blankness though....for pain makes sense only when its felt and experienced.
    God Bless you and Stuti and LRB's soul wherever he is.

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  2. I was the old student who told Prof. Raghunath that Prof. Bhandari was on the ill fated flight at the airport. I was there to receive family of another victim who was visiting us that day.

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    1. Thanks for sharing that bit of information, Mr. Sharma. It must have been a terrible day for you too.

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  3. Thank you Apoorva! At IIM-A I just took all the courses offered by Professor Labdhi Bhandari, despite focusing of systems and production, because I was so impressed with his wast practical experience and academic application simplicity! Till date, I have remembered his concepts of Marketing, Positionong and Propositions. I'm sure that you are a proud son and LRB will always live in your heart, as he lives in our heart. I'm honored to have been his student.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Sunil, for your kind comment. If you have any specific stories to share from the classroom, please e-mail me at editor@labdhibhandari.org

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  4. Thank you very much for sharing your story, there are many chuvst, completely different and they all make you think. I was very pleased to read this article, I found it very powerful. Thank you for all the emotions that I felt inside.
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    ReplyDelete

Please leave us a comment. If you knew LRB and would like to share your memories, please get in touch with us - editor@labdhibhandari.org

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