30 years on, Ahakista memorial stands in tribute to those lost in tragedy
Miracle memorial survives storm to provide comfort
by Eddie Cassidy
Nature acts in mysterious ways. Winter storms last year ripped up roads, uprooted gardens, and left a menacing trail of destruction on a peninsula trail.
But a shoreline memorial garden to the victims of the Air India disaster remained unscathed, save for a few concrete slabs being dislodged and plants being wind-damaged.
Padmini Turlapati, who lost her only two sons and who has returned to Ireland every year for the June ceremony, agreed with locals it was “a miracle” that the site survived.
The Toronto-based paediatrician said: “The creation of this pilgrimage place that I, we, can come back to year after year, permits me to become a mother once again…. that allows me to give thanks in prayer is sheer magic.
“At Ahakista last year, I had learnt that the adjacent area, fields, and road were all destroyed by the storm.
“It was a miracle that this memorial site stayed on so, said the locals. The garden place looked a little subdued and bare with the burning of the two big trees, planted years ago by my brother and sister, and of shrubs that have since been cleared.
“I tentatively stepped through the gate and, lo, the azaleas blazed welcome. The monument and plaques were there. Look, look — oh look at my azaleas planted 27 years ago — to the astonishment of the horticulturist who said they couldn’t live so close the sea.
“They have lived through the storm, dried and shrivelled and must have been in pain. Yet in defiance they have bloomed. They knew I was coming, with my heart and soul in my eyes. If this is not a miracle and if the pathos does not strike a chord of tenderness deep within, I do not know what else will bring tears. I count my blessings and offer thanks.”
Cork County Council’s acting senior executive engineer, Ruth O’Brien, said it was “quite incredible” that the memorial garden, on the Sheep’s Head peninsula in West Cork, mainly escaped the devastation caused by the storm that ravaged nearby Kilcrohane, Durrus, and Bantry.
“When a site was being considered for purchase 30 years ago, immediately after the disaster, the field next door was initially earmarked,” said Ms O’Brien. “The officials, at the time, almost acquired that site but it became unavailable. Unfortunately, it was among acres of shoreline land destroyed over several days by the January 2014 storms.”
She said the relatives’ association had made a five-figure contribution to the county council to assist in the maintenance of the site.
“From a county council perspective, the creation and maintenance of the memorial garden was something which everyone involved was very passionate about, and also very proud to be associated with,” said Ms O’Brien.
“The local community has taken the relatives into their hearts and, being a mother myself, it’s such a heartbreak to witness their grieving.
“With many bodies not recovered, the sea is still their grave, as such and, for the relatives, Ahakista is their place to grieve.
“The association has been given assurances in a letter from the county manager that, when a time comes and relatives, for one reason or another cannot travel, the site will be maintained and a ceremony will be conducted annually in memory of those that perished.”
The sheltered site, in deepwater Dunmanus Bay, offers a panoramic setting of both the Mizen and Sheep’s Head peninsulas. A formal garden garnished with flowering coastal shrubs leads into a circular flag-stoned area where low walls of locally cut stone embellish a lawn and a memorial stone with the names of all 329 crew and passengers who died.
A magnificent Ken Thompson-created sculpture is the focal point of the garden as a Kilkenny limestone sundial on a wheel-shaped sculpture shows the exact lines of latitude and longitude show the exact location and time at which the jumbo jet exploded and disappeared from air traffic control at Shannon. The shadow of the morning sun strikes the dial at the precise moment, 8.13am.
The Dublin-based embassies of India and Canada contributed to the creation of the garden, along with Cork County Council.
Now-retired council employee Michael Murphy, 77, was travelling from Bantry to Kilcrohane when he came across a bus which had brought relatives to the peninsula. It was in the days following the disaster and Mr Murphy, a former FCA officer, had also been on standby to assist with the massive recovery of bodies’ operation.
“I was going home from work and I saw them at the water’s edge,” he said. “They were throwing wreaths into the bay along with fruit.
“It was the nearest place they could get access to the shore when they got off the bus. They felt they were still in touch with their loved ones, by the water’s edge.
“It was so sad to see them, I stopped to talk to them. They said they were looking for a site to erect a monument.
“I offered to take up their request with my bosses the next morning and it started off from there.
“After the little garden site and memorial area was completed, it was every hard to get flowers and plants to grow so close to the sea but eventually they did.
“Every year, council employees continue to maintain the site which has now become a visitor attraction.”
A few cloudy and wet days have marred the annual ceremony over the years but Mr Murphy said: “On mornings that have been bright and beautiful, the sun sets perfectly on the sundial and hits the mark at precisely 8.13am. It’s a precious and very moving moment for all present, especially the relatives.”
Living in nearby Kilcrohane, Mr Murphy said: “The whole community opened their hearts to the relatives.
The first anniversary was in 1986, the year after the disaster and, hopefully, there will always be somebody there to commemorate it.”
A unique bond created through terrible tragedy
by Radhika Lal Lokesh, Dublin
Air India’s Boeing 747 Kanishka, operating as AI 182 flying from Montreal to London en route to Delhi, was blown up in Irish airspace and crashed into the sea off the west coast on June 23, 1985. More than 329 passengers and crew members lost their lives.
The Irish authorities immediately launched a major search and rescue operation, but there were no survivors.
The extraordinary level of solidarity, support, and assistance extended on that occasion by the local people to the victims’ families has created a unique bond.
While Ireland has always had a special place in the hearts of Indians, relatively few Indians had any prior knowledge of Cork.
This changed in the space of a few days after the 1985 disaster, when suddenly Cork became a household name in India.
Even in remote parts, people learnt about the sympathy, kindness, and generosity that Co Cork extended to those Indians and persons of Indian origin who had rushed to Ireland in such tragic circumstances. Special prayers were organised in churches all over Cork, as indeed in Ireland, for the departed.
The time, energy, and resources spent by scores of organisations and institutions across Cork to help those in need continues to be appreciated and remembered. Cork, and Ireland, strengthened our faith in man’s humanity to man.
This tragedy of 1985 has changed our understanding and perception of terrorism completely.
We understand better that acts of violence targeting innocent victims can have no justification or rationale. There is no reason that can make us accept such behaviour.
No ideology, whether political or religious, can be an adequate explanation for terrorist actions. India has always opposed terrorism in any form. But no one can alone fight this menace.
We need to resist any temptation to compromise on this issue for tactical or political ends.
Today, if there is fuller awareness of the dangers that threaten us, it has not been without a terrible price. Terrorists target democratic societies because they symbolise a pluralistic ethos that does not fit with fanaticism and fundamentalism.
A simple, but elegant, memorial stone was erected on the coast in Ahakista village, where many of the bodies were brought ashore. The monument was inaugurated on June 23, 1986, the first anniversary of the disaster, in the presence of India’s foreign minister, P Shivshankar.
Foreign ministers of Ireland and Canada were also present.
The 20th anniversary ceremony in 2005 was attended by then president of Ireland Mary McAleese, the prime minister of Canada, and India’s minister of state in the prime minister’s office, Prithviraj Chauhan.
At the 25th anniversary in 2010, the Indian government was represented by Salman Khurshid, minister of state for corporate affairs and minority affairs.
The Canadian government was represented by minister of immigration Jason Kenney and the Irish government was represented by the foreign affairs minister Micheál Martin.
Each year, some family members of the victims fly down to Ahakista — mainly from Canada — for the anniversary.
On the 25th anniversary, around 75 representatives of families of victims of the crash attended the ceremony, travelling from India, Canada, the US, and other countries.
Since 2000, the families have instituted two annual scholarships to students for their academic excellence and community work. These awards are given at the Bantry Courthouse at a simple ceremony. A small fund has been created to meet expenditure towards this year.
The ceremony itself is a solemn one and lasts about an hour from 6pm onwards. It is an open-air function at the memorial site. The programme will be roughly the same for the 30th anniversary.
For this morning’s 30th anniversary of the tragedy, minister of state for external affairs, General Dr V K Singh (retired), will be attending the commemoration ceremony.
A four-member delegation from Air India and Ministry of Civil Aviation, Government of India, has also attended.
Those visiting the memorial do not fail to acknowledge the commendable job done by Cork C ounty Council in maintaining and developing the memorial site over the years. Even during the flash floods of last year, the gardens surrounding the memorial were spared the fury.
Those who have lost sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, or friends continue to find solace and peace at the tranquil and beautiful memorial site year after year. Many others visit Ahakista throughout the year to pay homage to each of the persons whose names are inscribed on the wall opposite the sundial memorial.
Radhika Lal Lokesh is the Indian ambassador to Ireland
June 23 marks mixture of joy and sorrow for mother
by Derry-Ann Morgan
The pain of childbirth and the horror in which a man-made device can destroy hundreds of innocent lives resonates with me in a special way.
For the past 30 years, this has always been a day of great joy for me, but also a day of sorrow.
I brought a baby into the world on June 23, 1985 — the day of the Air India disaster.
Giving birth to my first child, a boy, in 1981, I have never forgotten the absolute overwhelming, heightened awareness I felt regarding the miracle and preciousness of life. It was the first time I felt the presence of an invisible veil existing between birth and death.
It opened in me a realisation that there has to be something much greater than me, a silent, invisible intelligence responsible for the beating of my heart and the heart of my baby.
However, nothing could have prepared me for the amalgamation of joy and sorrow that overcame me 30 years ago today.
It was a Sunday morning when I gave birth to my second child, a daughter I named Ruth Joy.
Not long after I had gone through labour and gave birth to my beautiful girl, I overheard two nurses talking about a Boeing 747 that had crashed into the sea off the coast of Cork.
My heart was filled with immense sorrow as I held my newborn baby in my arms — to learn that, as I gave birth to one new precious life, the lives of 329 innocent men, women, and children (including six babies) were callously wiped off the face of the planet in a matter of minutes.
Once again I experienced the same heightened awareness of the miracle and sacredness of life. However, the realisation of the presence of an invisible veil existing between birth and death reached a whole new plateau for me on that day.
I was completely shocked at how anyone could plan and plot to destroy lives, with no regard for the pain and suffering that was, in this instance, visited on the copious families and friends of the deceased.
The joy I experienced giving birth transformed into a dark sorrow that descended into the core of my being. My confused and broken heart went out to the families who lost their loved ones, without any warning and in such a barbaric way.
Each year since 1985, on June 23, I light a special candle in memory of all the victims of Air India Flight 182 including the two Japanese baggage handlers who died in a separate incident targeting Air India.
As my daughter Ruth gets older and we continue to celebrate her birthday with the family, we never forget those particular souls who departed the Earth on the day she was born.
Today, our thoughts and prayers will be once again very much be with everyone.
But we will also be thinking of another Ruth. She was Ruth Asirwatham, a passenger on Flight 182 who sadly lost her life along with her children, daughters Sunita, 14, and Anita, 12.
Ruth and her daughters were survived by husband and father John Asirwatham. They were all US citizens living in Buffalo, New York.
Dr Asirwatham has returned to Bantry, Co Cork, each year since tragedy took his family from him. This year, he is unable to attend.
I will light three special candles in memory of Dr Asirwatham’s dear lost loved ones in Ahakista this morning. I will also place white flowers in the Atlantic Ocean as a symbol to let Dr Asirwatham and other families know their loved ones will never be forgotten by the people of Ireland.
I made contact with Dr Asirwatham recently to let him read my article.
He emailed me back: “Thank you very much for your thoughtfulness and prayers all these years. It is hard to believe that 30 years have passed. I am very thankful for the love of the people of Cork. I will always cherish their hospitality and love.”
Derry-Ann Morgan is a former cabin crew member with Aer Lingus and worked on the transatlantic routes. She lives in Swords, Co Dublin.
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