Rajinder Singh and his bride of 12 days were returning home from a honeymoon in Nepal. Before that, neither had ever flown. A stewardess was serving meals, and the Singhs, both Sikhs, were waiting for their vegetarian trays.
Suddenly, three men rose from the row behind them and strode toward the cockpit. Singh, 24, thought he glimpsed a mask, a gun, a grenade. Then he saw the co-pilot come out and pick up a hand microphone. "Please be seated. Please be cooperative," he said. "The plane has been hijacked."
It was Dec. 24, and the eight-day ordeal of Indian Airlines Flight 814, carrying 189 passengers and crew from Katmandu to New Delhi, had begun. For the next 170 hours, the atmosphere veered from cordial to comical to deadly, depending on the hijackers' moods inside the cabin and the state of negotiations with Indian and Afghan authorities outside.
One masked gunman cracked jokes, another delivered lectures on Islam. Passengers were allowed to enact roles from a popular Hindi film. Then, for no apparent reason, the hijackers periodically would became enraged and say they were going to start killing everyone. A flight attendant was pistol-whipped for being too slow to tie a scarf around a passenger's eyes. A Belgian man was beaten, and a gun was stuck in his mouth.
"It was a complete see-saw," said Romesh Grover, a 43-year-old New Delhi businessman who was on the flight. "One hijacker who called himself 'Burger' cried a lot and said he was sorry to have to be doing this to us. The next day . . . he was threatening us with guns again."
The men wore ski masks and carried pistols or grenades at all times, the passengers said. They addressed each other only as Chief, Burger, Doctor, Shankar and Bhola and spoke in a combination of Hindi, Urdu and English. No one on board got a good look at their faces, and few tried after Ruppian Kaytal, a 25-year-old Indian, was stabbed to death the first day for disobeying orders to keep his head down.
The worst moment, said Grover and Singh, came on the third day. The plane was parked on an airport runway in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The hijackers, members of an armed movement fighting to end Indian rule in the largely Muslim Himalayan region of Kashmir, had waited two days for Indian negotiators to arrive, and they were growing desperate.
"They told us we were being treated like insects, that our government didn't care about us and that we should be prepared for death," said Singh, who makes window grills for a living. "My wife started to cry, and I made her stop, but then I started. The hijackers told us to pray, so everyone began praying to their own gods."
Devi Sharan, the 37-year-old pilot, said he knew he would be the first person shot if anything went wrong. "I was quite upset," he said, as the hours dragged by and no Indian negotiators arrived. The hijackers "meant business, that was sure," he said. "They were on a do-or-die mission."
Although the passengers did not know it, an equally dangerous moment had passed the first evening, when the hijackers were still looking for a place to land. The plane first touched down at Amritsar in northern India for refueling, but after 40 minutes passed and no fuel was delivered, they panicked and forced the pilot to take off.
"They thought commandos might be coming; they were about to shoot me and my flight engineer," Sharan said. "They started counting backward from 30, and I had to take off or they said they would blow up the plane." With his fuel tanks nearly empty, Sharan tried to land at nearby Lahore, Pakistan, but was refused permission.
"That's when I lost hope; there was very little fuel left, and I thought I was going to crash-land," he said in an interview today in his apartment, which was jammed with well-wishers. He said he brought the plane down to within several hundred feet of a road and was about to land when Pakistani officials changed their minds and turned on the runway lights.
Sharan, who has 12 years of flying experience, landed the Airbus A300 safely, and it was refueled. He then flew the plane on to Dubai--where 27 passengers were released and Kaytal's body was taken off the plane--and finally to Kandahar, where the jet sat for six days while negotiations proceeded. Ordered to leave the cockpit, Sharan focused on keeping the passengers' spirits up, reassuring them they would get home safely.
When the hijackers were not looking, Sharan said, he chatted casually with the passengers and murmured instructions on how to open the exit windows quickly and jump onto the runway if the men started shooting. "That was my contingency plan," he said. "Thank God we never had to use it."
Sharan and several passengers said the hijackers, lightly armed at the beginning, seemed to acquire more grenades and several rifles in Kandahar. Sharan and Grover said the hijackers apparently retrieved them from a cargo hold, which they opened with help from an Indian flight engineer and a special lift provided by Afghan officials. There were also reports that the plane had been wired with explosives, but Sharan said he doubts that.
The passengers described long hours of discomfort, of being forced to sit blindfolded in one position and not being allowed to use the toilets. Some male and female passengers were separated, although the Singhs and several other honeymooners were allowed to remain together.
Twice, the power generators broke down and the cabin grew dark and cold at night, hot and stuffy by day. Meals were delivered sporadically, and Singh found himself looking longingly at food strewn on the floor where the hijackers had thrown some meal trays.
"When you wanted to use the toilet, you had to raise your finger, and sometimes they ignored it," said Singh. "There was no water or paper left after a while, so the toilets overflowed and people used the pages of magazines. Sometimes the co-pilot came through and sprayed some air freshener, and that gave some temporary relief."
The hijackers, who demanded the release of 36 Islamic insurgents imprisoned in India, spoke emotionally of seeking to liberate Kashmir. Several passengers said the one called Chief became distraught when he spoke about Kashmir and protested that his family had been mistreated by Indian authorities.
Finally, on Dec. 30, the Indian government agreed to release three imprisoned insurgents in exchange for the hostages, and the hijackers accepted the deal. By the morning of Dec. 31, Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh was said to be en route to Kandahar with the prisoners, and the hijackers relaxed for the first time.
While some passengers now say they disapprove of the Indian government's decision to free the prisoners, Singh said he was just grateful to have been saved. But Singh also said he was angry that the hijackers were able to slip on board in Katmandu with so many weapons. The airport, he said, "is like a bus station. I went there to look for our missing luggage one day, and no one stopped me or said anything."
It is still not clear whether the hijackers had reservations or were on the passenger list; Indian authorities think three of them may have been listed under a multiple reservation for "S.A. Qazi." At 4 p.m. on New Year's Eve, when the Indian prisoners were handed over to the hijackers, the gunmen bid the passengers farewell, stepped off the plane and vanished--apparently headed for Pakistan.
"As they left, they said, 'Good-bye, friends; we love you and we'll meet again,' " Singh recounted. One passenger asked the men whether, if they seized another plane and he was on board, he could be released. "Yes, just let us know you have already been hijacked once before," came the parting reply.
Less than two hours later, the 155 freed passengers were back in New Delhi, being mobbed in the airport by relatives and journalists. Sharan, the hero of the hour, gave an impromptu news conference. But Singh and his wife Sukvinder, 21, kept a promise they had made each other if they survived. Hurrying out of the airport, the newlyweds drove to a Sikh temple, or gurdwara, in central Delhi, and gave thanks.
Special correspondent Debdeep Chakraborty in New Delhi contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Pilot Devi Sharan is embraced by daughters Aashna, left, and Deeksha at his Delhi home.