Former UAE resident reunited with family 45 years after plane crash

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A 70-year-old Indian man who was an events organizer in the United Arab Emirates will be reunited with his family this week, 45 years after they thought he had died in a plane crash which departed from Abu Dhabi.

Sajjid Thangal left his home town in Kottayam, in the southern state of Kerala, in 1974 when he was 22 to work in the Gulf, leaving behind his parents, four brothers and four sisters.

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He began organizing events in Abu Dhabi for dancers and singers from India.

On October 12, 1976, a troupe of performers died in a plane crash on a flight home.

Thangal cut off communication with his family in Kollam district after he narrowly escaped the Indian Airlines plane crash in Mumbai on October 12, 1976, which killed 95 people.

However, racked by grief and shame, Thangal did not contact his family, even when he returned to India. “I didn’t get in touch with the family because I felt like a failure,” he told international media. “I was meant to make my fortune in the Gulf and didn’t.”

“Then I kept thinking I would make something of myself in Bombay and then contact everyone. But that didn’t happen either. In this way, 45 years passed.”

Two years ago a friend found him destitute, penniless and so ill that he could barely walk. He took him to a shelter but he did not mention his family until a few weeks ago. Inquiries were made at the mosque in Kottayam and the imam knew the family.

The founder of Social and Evangelical Association for Love (SEAL) Ashram, Pastor K M Philip, who gave shelter to the man, said: “Thangal used to organize Indian cultural programs at Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the 70s. In October 1976, South Indian actress Rani Chandra and others had gone to UAE for one such event.”

“While flying back from Abu Dhabi to Madras, via Bombay, Thangal decided not to go with the troupe, and escaped the crash, while all of the troupe, including Chandra, died.”

Philip added that Thangal suffered from post-traumatic stress and related psychological issues after the crash, in which his friend also died. He started doing odd jobs in Mumbai, like filling visa and passport forms for others and worked in the catering line to survive in the city.

“In 2019, he was admitted to our shelter as a very frail old, sick man. But he slowly recovered and started narrating the story of his life . On getting his address in Kollam, we were surprised to know that his 91-year-old mother Fathima Beevi is there along with his younger brothers and sisters,” added Philip.

Talking to social activists over the phone in Malayalam, his mother broke down and said, “All these years we were hoping against hope that he is alive. His father Yunus Kunju, who died in 2012, helped several people in Kerala; so we were praying that his good deeds will help us find our lost son.”

Thangal has three younger brothers and four sisters; his family had earlier checked if his name was in the list of the crash victims. When they could not find it, they hoped someday Thangal will contact them.

At the SEAL shelter, Thangal said, “I first moved to UAE from my village in 1971. I worked as a storekeeper and did few other jobs. I later started organizing Indian cultural events. After the crash I got a big shock. I was afraid there may be an inquiry against me as I had survived. I did not earn much money in UAE, so I did not want to go back to my family in such a sorry state.”

Pastor Philip said, “Since there are so many missing persons in India, we at SEAL are working on a project on how to help them reunite with their families. Had Thangal not been cared for when he became ill, he may have gone away without his family knowing it.”

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