What I am about to relate has a bearing on Shirdi Sai Samadhi Day.
Around 5 pm on 15th October, 2006, we took off from Mumbai for Jeddah via Hyderabad in an Airbus 310. There was a ground halt at Hyderabad for an hour. While the aircraft was being serviced, I stepped out into the jetty and made a call to someone very dear to remind her to dedicate that evening's bhajans to Shirdi Sai and to reminisce about His glories.
My mind too seemed to fly to Shirdi, as I stepped back into the plane to check on the cleaning before welcoming passengers on board.
The flight was not too full and the take-off was smooth and on time. It being Ramzan time, we decided to serve dinner immediately on leveling off, as most of our passengers had been fasting.
After clearing the cabin, and seeing to passenger comfort, I sat down in the crew rest area - the last row of seats on the right hand side – to eat my meal. My colleague was sitting near the window and I was on the aisle seat. As she chatted, my mind sped off to Dwarkamai, the dhuni, the boulder that Baba sat on, His Samadhi, and so on…
My dinner and mental pilgrimage over, I excused myself and stood up with the dinner tray in my hand. And that was it.
The aircraft shook sideways vigorously and then kept losing height rapidly. The tray went flying out of my hands and I lost all sense of gravity and was flung about like a rag doll or perhaps like a tiny leaf in a mighty storm - completely weightless.
As I was being tossed about, my head hitting the bins on top and my body against the seat handles, I recollect my first thoughts being: "This is no ordinary turbulence, it can't be happening."
Then, instinctively, I started chanting 'SaiRam' slowly and loudly. Just a simple 'SaiRam'. Each 'SaiRam' was elongated.
I tried clutching the handles of the seats on either side but I could not, though the aisle was narrow. I kept being flung about.
By the 9th or the 10th 'SaiRam' or so it seemed, the aircraft somewhat stabilised and I got into the seat on my left but I was gasping and could not breathe or speak for a few seconds and my right ribs hurt. I would later learn that two right ribs were fractured in that incident, but at that time, my thoughts were on the passengers and as soon as I could breathe properly, I shouted out to all in the cabin to remain seated and keep their seat belts on. One of my colleagues had gone to the front of the cabin just prior to this incident and so she had slipped into an empty seat and was saved. But much later, after we had given first aid to all the passengers, she almost collapsed and had to be revived. A kind of a delayed shock perhaps!
The colleague, who had sat by my side, hit her head on the side lights on the ceiling several times and fractured her right knee too. Besides being jolted around, nothing much happened to the crew in the forward section as the rear of the aircraft always takes the brunt.
As I was loudly instructing the passengers, since many do not leave their seat belts on, a passenger, who was flung about in the toilet through this time and was bleeding profusely as he had a cut in his mouth, came into the cabin. Looking absolutely shocked and aghast, he was wondering what to do. I made him sit next to me and reached out to the beverage cart, which was fortunately within reach, got some ice, wrapped it in a headrest cover and put it on his mouth to stem the bleeding. This tall, young boy later told me that he was tossed about like a football in the toilet!
It was time for action now as many passengers were hurt and wounded. There was this young passenger who had annoyed the crew by continuously using his cell phone even as we taxied out, knowing it interferes with the aircraft navigation and communication systems. It was this same youngster who came to our rescue as he turned out to be a dental surgeon! Unceasing grace…
Some of the crew assisted this doctor in suturing and giving anesthesia to those wounded while the rest got busy administering first aid to other passengers. While doing so, some concerned passengers reminded me to clean up my face and uniform sari, as I had food all over me. Since there were so many calls for help, and immediate action was necessary, this had taken a backseat till things were somewhat under control...
There was food and broken crockery all over the galley floor and it looked tornado hit. We could only clear this up just before landing into Jeddah, as till then we were attending to passengers who were mentally shocked or physically wounded or a bit of both.
One elderly lady had to be immobilised. As a consequence of not having fastened her seat belt, she had been flung about, up and down and had fractured her right leg. Her seat handle, which must have borne her weight, was completely mangled. She seemed shaken and cold and as I hugged and reassured her, I asked if she would like to take some oxygen. She seemed much better once she had been administered oxygen. Once we landed into Jeddah, the paramedics had to be called to carefully take her out of her seat and to the hospital.
This life threatening incident took place while we flew over Muscat; it was 1840 hrs in Oman and 2010 hrs in India. On the surgeon's assurance that passengers were alright, the decision was taken to fly on to Jeddah, three hours away.
Since majority of the passengers had been fasting, we had finished the dinner service earlier than normal, otherwise the casualties and injuries would have been tremendous if the beverage or dinner carts had been in the cabin or if the tea and coffee service was on. Yet another blessing…
It was the holy month of Ramzan and prayers were continuous.
What happened that evening has not been revealed. There was an inquiry where we, the crew, were all questioned. What seemed like eternity, we were told, lasted only a minute. We lost 5000 feet in a minute! There were whispers of a near air miss, of our aircraft having swerved to the right, cloud pocket, etc. It could have been anything.
Having been in the flying industry for more than half my life, I knew deep down, that it was a near disaster that had been averted.
What was to be a full stop was changed to a comma. Mysterious and unfathomable are the Lord's ways. All I remember in retrospect is that, as I automatically started chanting 'SaiRam', there was no other thought in the mind - no fear, no panic and especially no 'Save me, Oh Lord'. Only a calm surrender, a 'whatever You wish'; life or death didn't matter, whichever side the soul travelled, there was only Sai…
I have learnt that it is not when He saves your life that He saves You; it is when He fills your heart with love, compassion, forgiveness and tolerance that He really saves you…
The above is only one of several instances where I have continuously felt His presence. Whatever the situation may be up in the air, He has always been there.