Dwijal Dave, 11, was flying home alone to the United States from a visit to his grandparents when hijackers boarded his plane and shot the boy next to him. Gopal Dadhirao's pregnant wife was blown apart before his eyes 18 years ago when the terrorists tossed grenades at the couple's seats on Pan Am Flight 73.
Flight attendant Sunshine Vesuwala became a human shield during the 16-hour siege, as the hijackers' leader pulled her around the plane by the neck, executed American passengers and terrorized all 379 people on board.
One by one, 14 survivors and relatives of the people who died aboard the commandeered aircraft took the witness stand yesterday in a federal courtroom to tell a judge about the horror and loss they endured at the hands of the hijackers' leader, Zayd Hassan Safarini.
Some tearful, some fuming, the victims testified to U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, who is scheduled to decide today whether to impose three consecutive life sentences on Safarini, 41, as part of a plea agreement with the government.
The day-long hearing, which continues briefly this morning with testimony from eight more victims, served as a catharsis for some and a painful reliving of the hours of Sept. 5, 1986, for others.
"Every day I wake up to that horrendous sight of my wife . . . a serene face on one half and a scorched skeleton on the other half," Dadhirao said. "I live each day with guilt that I betrayed her trust: She is dead, and I could not save her."
The Pan Am flight began in Bombay and was headed for New York but was hijacked at the airport during a stopover in Karachi, Pakistan. Four members of the Abu Nidal Organization, a radical Palestinian splinter group, had disguised themselves as Pakistani security guards and boarded the plane with the intention of blowing it up over Israel.
But the crew escaped. The terrorists demanded another pilot to help them take off but opened fire and tossed grenades at the trapped passengers when the plane lost power and no pilot arrived. Safarini and four fellow members of the Abu Nidal group -- including one who helped plan the attack but did not participate -- were convicted in Pakistani courts of the hijacking and of killing 22 people, two of them Americans.
Safarini's Pakistan sentence was commuted after he had served 14 years, and he was released. But FBI agents seized him in the fall of 2001 as part of the Justice Department's pledge to "hunt down all terrorists one by one" and prosecute them.
Sullivan yesterday described Safarini's actions as "horrific criminal activity" and said he plans to recommend that Safarini be kept in solitary confinement in an underground, maximum security federal prison in the Southwest.
"He doesn't deserve to see daylight," Sullivan told the victims. "He has forfeited the right to walk in civilized society ever again."
The Justice Department sought the death penalty for Safarini, but Sullivan ruled last year that federal law at the time did not allow it.
One midwestern scientist whose father was killed on the flight told the judge he respectfully disagreed. "The victims would like to tear him limb from limb and feed his remains as a feast for hyenas and vultures . . . but we respect the rule of law," said Prabhat Krishnaswami. "We believe he deserves three kinds of death penalties, not three life sentences."
More than 70 survivors and relatives attended yesterday's proceedings, traveling from 11 states and five other countries. Many explained that they sought closure by watching Safarini brought to justice; others protested that no penalty would be harsh enough for what they had suffered.
Vesuwala, visibly angry, recounted Safarini's taunting of an American passenger, Rajesh Kumar, whom Safarini had promised to kill if a pilot did not arrive soon. As Kumar cried, Safarini asked him, "Aren't you a man?" He then shot him in the head.
"Well, are you a man?" Vesuwala angrily asked Safarini, who sat at a courtroom table with his defense lawyers and showed little emotion. "A weapon doesn't make someone strong. Put a weapon in my hand. I'll show you."