Tragedy beyond the PIA crash

Jun 14 2020


The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

AT about 2.35 p.m. on May 22, PK8303 passenger Khalid Sherdil, who was sitting in the first row of the PIA A320, messaged someone very close to him in Karachi: “Something is wrong … we bumped on the runway, and it seems like the brakes didn’t work”.

This, we now know, was when the plane engines scraped the runway before the pilots decided to execute a ‘go around’. Five minutes later tragedy struck PK8303 as it crashed in a residential area while attempting an emergency landing at Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport after dual engine failure.

As news of the crash broke, one can’t even imagine what loved ones were going through such as the person Sherdil was flying out to meet in Karachi and spend the Eid holidays with. She says he insisted on coming, despite her pleadings not to fly, due to Covid-19 exposure fears, to ‘pop the question’.

Of the 99 ‘souls on board’, including the two pilots and the six-member cabin crew, there are just two survivors. But some of our 24X7 news channels started to claim there were seven or more survivors including my former colleague, a fine journalist and human being Ansar Naqvi.

A new torture was to start which, in some cases, continued for nearly three weeks.

They also said Khalid Sherdil was one of the survivors. He was a respected civil servant who headed the Punjab government’s Urban Unit, had developed an expertise in disaster management, and is said to have done some seminal work in data analysis including predictive modelling for the Covid-19 crisis which is now proving to be spot on.

Whilst this news sent his friends in Karachi scurrying to various hospitals being mentioned by these channels to find him, his family members in Lahore who include among them civil servants, say they were receiving totally different news from their civil service colleagues on the ground.

The channels which reported a number of survivors more than the two who actually made it out alive from the crashed plane did not bother to source their reports and more than three weeks on have not said once how they claimed that number. Of course, an apology is not in their culture.

If this anxious period for some of those whose loved ones perished in the crash was clearly over by the next morning as the number of survivors was unambiguously established, a new torture was to start which, in some cases, continued for nearly three weeks.

The fierce blaze that started and spread through the wreckage of the plane and the fuselage meant that identifying the human remains of the majority of passengers and crew was a difficult task. The horror of the victims’ loved ones was compounded because so many remains were unidentifiable by sight.

DNA-matching remained the only certain way of identifying the victims where there was no article of apparel or jewellery on their person making their identity clear to those who were burdened with this onerous exercise of recognising their loved ones thus.

How this DNA-matching and the whole disaster management system fared was apparent by the next morning and more so over the following week. It was heartrending to see Arif Faruki, who lost his wife and all three children in the tragedy, take to social media with appeals for help.

He said there was not a single person, not one, as the designated contact from PIA, the federal and the provincial governments nor the two disaster management agencies who they could contact for the most rudimentary of information such as where to go to offer their own/relatives’ DNA sample.

It was equally tragic to see someone tweeting appeals for help in despair as this particular person’s parents had been among the passengers and they had been running literally from pillar to post in order to find out how they would be able to find their remains for burial, to get some closure.

Khalid Sherdil’s family members say some of them were aware of the shortcomings of the DNA analysis capacity of the Sindh lab working under the Karachi University so ensured that a team from the Punjab Forensic Science Agency was despatched from Lahore by road.

Bizarrely, rather than welcome the additional expertise, the Karachi University vice chancellor and some junior level administration officials reportedly got all territorial about this and refused to allow the Punjab team access to the victims’ remains.

Even one order from the Sindh chief minister was not enough and it took a second ‘unequivocal’ intervention by Murad Ali Shah, who the Sherdil family described as extremely humane, to enable the team to gather the required samples. It then left for Lahore to complete the matching process.

The family concede that they are privileged, with access, and even then it took them a number of days to make headway. Unlike the woman who last week uploaded on social media a plea for her husband’s remains to be handed over so she could bury them and tell her young children where he is.

Even now there are reports of anxiety among a few families because they are not certain the remains of their loved ones were correctly identified as there have been reports of differences in the DNA results of the Punjab and Karachi labs in some of the cases.

More than one of the affected families have told me that the first time ever someone was contacted by PIA was when they tried to make an appointment for the CEO to visit and hand over cheques of compensation and insurance.

At least one family told me they found this quest for a photo opportunity outrageous and disgraceful and told the CEO to stay away especially since the airline officials remained distant and apathetic all through their painful ordeal.

An expert told me that DNA samples, given the state of some of the remains, can take several days to extract, process and match with living relatives. That may well be the case but was this explained by one designated person to the grieving families?

Pakistan and its institutions really need to up their game and be demonstrably much more empathetic when dealing with such incidents. What will we do, Heaven forbid, if the fallout from the Covid-19 mishandling approaches proportions impacting not dozens but thousands? Let’s collectively ponder.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, June 14th, 2020