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October 24, 2020

PK8303: ‘but why...’ — the plane crash survivor’s account


October 24, 2020

After over four and a half months, I am finalising and releasing this article on my 50th birthday. I had gotten much more birthday wishes this year than ever before which was a great feeling indeed. Some people, however, suggested that there should be birthday celebrations for me twice a year - once on 9th October and other on 22nd May. While I appreciate context and affection of people to suggest that but to be honest, I would never like to celebrate 22nd May, in any way. That was not a happy moment as it took away 97 innocent lives; it was, in reality, a very very sad day by any stretch of imagination. At the outset, I pray for the 97 victims of this tragic incident. May their souls rest in eternal peace. To share with you, right after the crash, their well-being was on my mind all throughout my consciousness, until I found out about their ill-starred status later on that disastrous day. Although, I didn’t know anyone of them at the time of accident, and it was only post-fact I had found-out about a few of them that I knew personally. But there has been a strange sense of belonging between me and them. They all be sorely missed by me and their loved ones; in fact, by the entire nation, forever.

I had started this article from my hospital bed, albeit at home, while I was still recovering from my known and unknown wounds, on the insistence of my friends and family, and the public in general, who’re most interested in knowing what had happened on that fateful day and what has my experiences been from the unfortunate crash of PK8303 from Lahore to Karachi, and finally completed it on my half a century birthday.

I was also been suggested to write a book on this ordeal and my life, which I believe is too early for me to undertake and I shall give it another five years at least, as my life story post-accident may also become an important lesson to share for everyone. Therefore, I have decided to resort on this relatively brief write-up, at this stage.

I have been invariably asked what was I doing when the disaster happened and why do I think that God saved me? Frankly, I have no conclusive response to these questions and while I am searching for answers, it’s maybe relevant to contextualise my situation in and around the time of the tragedy. The real answer may actually lay in my whole life story, and hence authoring the biography becomes important, but it maybe pertinent to discuss what was happening around me immediately before the sad day, as those were one of the most eventful times of my life, anyways, and may have correlation to my circumstances of survival.

Ironically, on the terrible day, I had woken-up ahead of time set on my alarm clock, perhaps in excitement that I would be traveling later in the day to Karachi to spend Eid holidays for almost a week with my family. The real excitement could be that I had spent a very satisfying first stint of five weeks with the Bank of Punjab as its chief executive. The kind of support and welcome that I had received from the Board and the Colleagues was overwhelming, to say the least. I had joined the bank with great reluctance, being part of public sector having its own professional hazards, but all those suspicions and inhibitions were turned out to be unfounded hitherto.

There had been no permanent CEO at the helm of affairs of the Bank for the past one and a half year which created a strategic vacuum, plus the prevailing Corona situation further complicated the matters. It was absolutely critical to put the organisation back on the strategic path and take actions that would give necessary comfort to the staff who have been on the frontlines during these trying and uncertain times, about the commitment of the new CEO towards their welfare and well-being. With the support of senior colleagues, I have been able to successfully instill confidence in the staff with active and strong communication through written communication and holding first of kind town-hall on FacebookLive (perhaps the only local bank which probably did it) due to the constraints of Corona. The initiative of reaching out to the employees through FacebookLive turned out to be a super hit move. During one hour session, questions of the employees, received online on the screen, were taken up and addressed right there and then, whilst initial vision and strategy was shared with specific focus on employee development and prosperity.

Having done all that, it was, however, the COVID related actions and relief to the employees, which proved the staff in my commitment towards their care and put us ahead of the curve in banking sector to provide extra support to them in these times of need. That all went down very well across the board. This was all done with most sincerity and with every noble intention and without any vested interest. More specifically, it was the extension of special bonus for frontline staff and enhancement in limit of concessional/ interest free loans to the employees which were one of the most satisfying acts of my life.

This was largely believed that the extension of these concessions, in those particular times of need, were the actions which resulted in my survival. The fact is that I can’t take the full credit of these initiatives, as these concessions were already approved by the Board on the recommendation of the then Senior Management of the Bank, before I had taken over. What I could take the credit for, perhaps, is that I didn’t stop them, on the pretext that no other bank in the market was doing it at that time, and probably non has done it even today, and ensured just and timely distribution of the bonus pool. But I did those fag-end actions with full conviction and commitment with my heart and mind in them. Lucky for me that I had the privilege and the honour of announcing those allowances eventually to the employees which probably left the impression that I was the architect of these very worthy initiatives.

During the same very short span of time at work, long overdue revised organisational structure was approved by the Board and was rolled out which gave further certainty and put to rest some earlier unwarranted inhibitions of the employees. This was all considered to be too much grounds covered in a very brief span of time which was indeed the most satisfying and exciting to sense about the future course for me at the Bank of Punjab. Some people did ask me why I was moving so fast and probably I needed to slow-down. Little that anyone was aware that I would not be available for work for a period of next two months and perhaps I was covering for those expected lost time in future, sub-consciously.

I am notorious of getting to the airport at the nick of time, right before the counter is closed/ flight take-off. Interesting enough, on 22nd May 2020, I had reached the airport much ahead of my usual time. Fortunately that gave me enough time to get my seat changed. I was initially booked for window side, but I always prefer to sit on the aisle seat; therefore, got my seat changed to 1C, despite insistence from my protocol officer that the entire row is vacant and it would not matter much where I would be sitting in that row, but I had insisted out of sheer habit and routine of sitting on the isle side. Change in seat, in hindsight only, may turned out to be one of the reasons of my survival.

On the other hand, would like to share with you that I was booked on Serene Air at eleven o’clock on the same morning. Though, got it changed merely a day earlier, when the unfortunate PIA special flight came up on the timetable, due to two reasons: 1). PIA flight was at a better time of the day and didn’t require me to wake up and get ready early in the morning which I absolutely detest, and; 2). in case if the flight gets cancelled then Serene Air doesn’t generally have flights the same day and one has to wait for another day for the next, alternate flight, while PIA generally has more than one flight a day and one gets to travel the same day on another flight. That’s my experience of traveling extensively within the Country over the years.

Co-incidentally, the plane also got ready for take-off ahead of time. On that day, everything seemed to be happening ahead of schedule, as if there was some sort of urgency in the air and the people concerned were to reach their respective destinations without delay.

While sitting at the passengers lounge, I realised that today was the birthday of one of my closest friend, who’s like family and a brother to me. He’s very sensitive about us remembering his birthdays, particularly by one of our friends from university who’s the “gang leader”. The birthday-boy particularly likes the gang leader to remember his birthdays and the first ones to be wishing him. We have our friends WhatsApp group, like almost everyone else these days, and whenever there’s someone’s birthday, the WhatsApp group title changes to wish him happy birthday and the display picture has the picture of the birthday-boy until another birthday comes up. It was a holiday, midday had passed, and there was no such change in the WhatsApp group. Realising the sensitivity of the situation, I had sent a text reminding the “gang leader” to make the necessary changes on the WhatsApp group with respect to the day. You may wonder what’s the significance of this story. I could have wished the friend directly not involving rest of the group and made the traditional changes in WhatsApp group myself, as I am also one of the group admins, but I choose not to break the tradition and take a solo flight. The moral of the story is that one should always be sensitive to other’s wishes and what makes them happy. These little things go a long way in spreading love and that’s one thing that the God loves for sure, in my faith. This small gesture may reflect an aspect of my personality and what sort of person I am, and hence shared it with you, as this could be the possible reason for let me live that day by my God.

Although, I got on the plane 15/20 minutes ahead of scheduled take-off time but it turned out that I was perhaps one of the last ones who got on board. Maybe a very few people came aboard after me and the flight got all the passengers who were supposed to be there and the pilot had decided to leave Lahore slightly ahead of scheduled time. Since, I was sitting on the very first seat, I didn’t know who all were sitting around. There was one gentleman seated in the same row as mine but he was two seats removed across the isle; rest of the entire row was empty. He was wearing the full corona protection gear, with PPE gown and all. I did see him on the plane but didn’t recognise him, given his attire. It’s only after the fact that I was told about his identity and I happened to know him.

I have the tendency of turning on my iPad before the aircraft takes off, watch either a movie or start working. I did the same that day too. Except a couple of times, when I got light refreshments, water and tea, as I was not fasting, I had continued to work on my emails. There was so much work to catch up on and I was most motivated; wearing black Bank of Punjab branded T-shirt as its proud CEO, that I had remained too engrossed in work and didn’t look around to see who all were present on the plane. It was only the first irregular landing attempt that caught my attention and forced me to put off my iPad and start looking around to see the reaction of others. As usual, the pilot made brief landing announced at the right time, and it all appeared smooth and regular, but when the plane landed, it had three unusual bumps. The first bump didn’t bother me, as it’s generally the case on landing specially when it lands with more than the usual landing speed and with steep angle, which was the case with PK8303 too. However, this was second bump, immediately after the first one, which forced me to wrap-up my iPad and looked around to see the reaction of others. By that time, third bump occurred, and then within seconds, pilot decided to took-off the aeroplane back in the air which was surely very unusual; at least happened with me for the very time. I had realised that the window on my side of the row/ isle was shut. I had gotten up from my seat and opened the window, as first reaction, to see if there were indications from outside which would require us to be prepared for something adverse. The plane went back up, apparently as high as 3,000 feet, as per its SOP, in a very odd manner - fast and narrow. It was all very surprising and frightening.

There were no indications from outside my window of any distress and I didn’t notice any shouting or concerns on the part of passengers either. At least, I didn’t hear it. I did look around while sitting on my seat and there were people sitting in the row right behind me who were calm but praying and reciting verses from the Holy Quran, as the whole episode was unusual and scary; could be a harbinger of something even worst which it turned out to be later-on, in reality. My seat was such that it was slightly removed from the soft partition between the cabin crew and the passenger seats area. I could clearly see the two air-hostesses sitting right across from me who were also praying and reciting. The door of cockpit was shut.

There were no indications of crash landing, no announcement whatsoever; if anything, there was another and last message from the cockpit which was: “cabin crew ready for landing”. Few seconds before the collision, there was a jerk, maybe due to the failure of engines, and with that the cockpit door opened wide and I saw from the windscreen that as if the plane was “nosediving”. Although, later-on I had figured that it was perhaps not nosediving but since it was so close to the physical infrastructure on the ground that I got this impression that as if it was nosediving. Whatever, it was, I was very clear that the plane was meeting a disaster and there was no way that the situation could be averted at that moment.

The most crucial part of the whole episode came then. While, I have never been scared of death and was sure that the plane was running into the community on the ground and was ready for any consequences as a result, I had asked my dear God inside me, “am I dying”? The answer was that “it’s not the time and I will not die”. I had asked again and the response was the same that “the plane is smashing but you will not die”. After that I got this conviction that I will survive this crash which I had no doubts was inevitable. This piece in the whole episode gives me goosebumps whenever I reflect on it. I don’t know where this confidence came from but it was there in me. My father also told me later-on that he also had similar belief when he had found-out about the crash through the television that afternoon.