By James Stairs
Ottawa – Cost concerns led a 1985 Air India flight to take off from Toronto despite credible information that a terrorist attack was imminent, an inquiry into the two-decade-old bombing heard Wednesday.
The revelation was the latest in a litany of security oversights, unheeded warnings and miscommunication among security officials in the days before Air India Flight 182 was blown from the sky, killing 329 people.
The lapses are a catalogue of missed opportunities: repeated warnings as early as 1984 and up to days before the disaster of an attack by Sikh extremists; absent sniffer dogs at Toronto airport; a malfunctioning x-ray machine; a tardy policeman.
On Wednesday, the special tribunal heard from a baggage screener who testified that he overheard officials saying that keeping the plane on the tarmac was too costly to justify searching baggage already on board, even though three suspicious bags had been found among those being loaded onto the plane.
‘The cost of keeping the plane on the tarmac was high and the decision to depart the plane was based on that factor,’ said Daniel Lalonde. ‘The flight was going to go. The decision was that the plane was going to leave.’
Lalonde, who was 18 at the time, was describing a conversation between Air India security officers and airport personnel in testimony at the tribunal being held in the Canadian city of Ottawa.
Most of those on board the ill-fated flight were Canadian citizens of Indian descent from Vancouver who arrived in Toronto on a connecting flight from a different airline.
After boarding Air India 182 in Toronto, they stopped over in Montreal, but never reached the next destination, London’s Heathrow airport.
The bomb exploded in mid-air off the coast of Ireland on June 23, 1985. The same day, two Japanese baggage handlers died when a second bomb exploded in Tokyo’s Narita airport in bags that originated in Vancouver and were destined to be placed on an Air India flight to Bangkok.
Retired supreme court justice John Major, who is chairing the inquiry into whether Canadian police did enough to avert the bombing, has stopped proceedings twice since it began in September over disputes with security officials over access to documents relating to the case.
Lalonde, who was 18 at the time, also said that three bags, deemed suspect but later found to contain no explosives, were removed before they were placed on the plane in Toronto.
Earlier, the inquiry panel heard that Canadian officials were aware that Sikh extremists based in Canada were planning a terrorist attack on an Air India flight and that the security threat level had been raised.
Police allege that the bombers were part of a militant cell of the Sikh separatist group Babbar Khalsa based in the Canadian province of British Columbia.
Only one person has been convicted for the bombing. In 1991, Inderjit Singh Reyat was sentenced to ten years in a Canadian prison for supplying components for the bomb that exploded in Japan.
Ripudaman Singh Malik, a Sikh religious leader, and Ajaib Singh Bagri, a wealthy businessman, were acquitted after a sensational trial in 2005.
Lalonde’s testimony came a day after the inquiry heard that the bomb-sniffing dog normally on site at Toronto’s Pearson airport was away on a training exercise and unavailable to screen the luggage.
While normal security rules required that any suspicious luggage be hand-inspected, Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officer Gary Carlson, the dog handler, confirmed this was not done. In addition, an x-ray machine had malfunctioned, leaving baggage screeners with only hand-held wands which had failed to detect explosives during a test six months earlier.
Earlier in the week, a policeman assigned to security at Montreal’s Mirabel airport during the stopover testified that he arrived to check flight 182 only after the plane had departed for Heathrow.
The inquiry has also heard of a dispute between Transport Canada – the federal transport agency – and RCMP over who should bear the added costs of increased screening requested by Air India after the warnings.
Families of the victims have complained bitterly that they were not properly informed by Canadian officials as the crisis unfolded, and that the investigation was poorly handled by police.
The warnings about a Sikh extremist plot against Air India started in 1984. A retired Vancouver policeman told the panel about an informant who approached him in October 1984 with information.
Another Vancouver police officer, Don McLean, described a conversation recorded in early June 1985 between Sikh militants who discussed the bombing of a flight ‘within two weeks.’
In both cases, the men said they passed the information on to Canadian police with no results.
Just days before the bombing, a retired Canadian diplomat, James Bartleman, saw intelligence that the attack was imminent, he told the panel.
The testimony has contradicted claims by the Canadian government that it was not aware of any threats to the airline.
‘It is very hard to live with this fact, that they had so much information and it never went through to save the airline,’ Mahesh Sharma, who lost several family members in the tragedy, said after the testimony.