First-hand account: The continuing nightmare of the PK-8303 crash

Further loss of life is inevitable unless decisive and curative changes are implemented within the Pakistani aviation industry.
Published May 22, 2021

On May 22, 2020, my husband’s parents, Wahida and Fazal Rahmaan, were killed in the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flight PK-8303 crash. We imagine them holding hands in death as they always did in life. Of the two survivors, one was seated in 8F, a mere two rows away from our parents.

To say that our entire family was devastated would be a gross understatement. We have spent the past year feeling gutted, untethered and heartbroken for our own loss and also for the shattered families of the 95 others who perished. We have come to know and grieve virtually with the others who lost their most beloved in this crash. But we are also angry. Scratch that — we are furious. The crash of PK-8303 was not an inescapable mishap; it is the result of sheer neglect and years of deliberate abandonment of safety principles by the PIA organisation.

One year later, we are still bereft and without answers. Questions will remain until the findings from an independent and transparent investigation into the PK-8303 crash are released. By some estimates, it could take up to three years before a final crash investigation report is released.

This handout picture taken on March 26, 2020, and received as a courtesy of the Adil Rahman family shows Fazal Rahmaan (2R) celebrating his 80th birthday with his wife Wahida Fazal Rahmaan in Lahore. — AFP/File
This handout picture taken on March 26, 2020, and received as a courtesy of the Adil Rahman family shows Fazal Rahmaan (2R) celebrating his 80th birthday with his wife Wahida Fazal Rahmaan in Lahore. — AFP/File

While the families wait for answers, PIA not only continues to operate and profit, they are making families’ legally mandated compensation contingent on signing a Release and Discharge Agreement (RDA). This RDA eliminates the option for families to seek any legal recourse against culpable parties. My family and others are not willing to forgo our right to hold any entity responsible for the murder of our loved ones.

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Our parents, like many others, were traveling to Karachi to celebrate the Eid holidays with family after being under lockdown for two months. What pains me is that their flight made it all the way from Lahore to Karachi, even touched down on the runway, yet they didn’t walk off that plane. The first attempted landing must have alerted passengers that something was amiss. We know that the pilot descended too fast, endeavoured to land without the landing gear deployed, and immediately took off upon impact with the runway — but not before both engines were catastrophically damaged, which ultimately led to their failure and resulted in the disaster.

In a seemingly shortening news cycle, it was no surprise that people moved past this tragedy and onto the more sensational Uzma Khan story rather quickly. I imagine most people probably paused to think about the lives lost and the gut-wrenching grief of the families but didn’t realise the crash was only the beginning of a series of horrors for us and the other victims’ families. The lack of any functional disaster management response by PIA further victimised the already traumatised families.

I am baffled by just how callously and inadequately PIA has handled the aftermath. The airline has no functional disaster management process in place. With PIA’s history of aviation disasters, one would assume it would have crisis management down to a science. An absent centralised response from PIA left the grieving families entirely on our own to navigate the horrific logistics of identifying and recovering our loved ones while struggling with our enormous anguish. The many instances of insensitivity and ineptitude displayed by PIA amplified our pain.

The physical condition of the victims required DNA matching for positive identification, a fact that itself was highly disturbing. Perhaps one of the most egregious and heartbreaking offences in the management of this disaster was the misidentification of some victims and the handing over of incorrect remains to families due to suspect forensic competence of a lab at Karachi University, tapped by PIA to assist in the matter.

Adding to our confusion and sorrow was the fact that PIA did not have a central hotline to provide answers, leaving us unclear as to how and when we would receive the remains of our parents. However, PIA employees deemed it appropriate to call us at all hours of the day and night to ask us if we had yet received their remains. In a state of perplexed exasperation, I kept wondering why they didn’t know the answer to this very question themselves.

Also read: PIA plane crash survivor refuses to travel by air

Although our parents’ bodies were recovered a full week after DNA testing, those of us living abroad were unable to travel to Pakistan due to Covid-19 to bury them. Now that we find ourselves in the wholly unwelcome position of picking up the pieces, we realise that in addition to PIA, the entire Pakistani aviation industry has failed us and the 95 other passengers who perished.

Relatives of the crash victims protest outside the Karachi Press Club earlier this month. — Shakil Adil/White Star/File
Relatives of the crash victims protest outside the Karachi Press Club earlier this month. — Shakil Adil/White Star/File

Pakistan’s national carrier has been plagued by financial failures, bloated staffing, corruption, and lax safety protocols for decades. Despite these widely known deficiencies, no sincere efforts have been directed towards corrective measures, resulting in a superficial and fragile safety culture. While our loved ones will never come back, the crash of PK-8303 presented an opportunity for PIA to initiate a thorough evaluation of its organisation. It has declined to do so.

PIA has put maximal effort into dodging accountability and avoiding media scrutiny of its corruption and unsafe practices. The contingency that families sign an RDA in order to receive their rightful compensation is yet another tactic to divert attention away from their poorly run, flailing, and unsafe airline while protecting their pockets.

Further loss of life is inevitable unless deliberate, decisive and curative changes are implemented within the aviation industry in Pakistan. Over the past year, I have often thought about those two rows as the difference between life and death for our parents. In truth, it wasn’t those two rows, but years of administrative and governmental failures that separated our parents from life. A life they lived to the fullest, but one that was cut short due to the blatant disregard of fundamental aviation safety protocols.

Rabia Rahman is the daughter-in-law of Wahida and Fazal Rahmaan who perished on flight PK-8303. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri and is an Assistant Professor at St. Louis University.

Header image: Rescue workers gather at the site of a passenger plane crash in a residential area near the Karachi airport on May 22, 2020. — Reuters/File