Families of those on Air India flight diverted to Russia anxiously await reunions

ByAmanda del Castillo KGO logo
Thursday, June 8, 2023
Families of passengers stranded in Russia anxiously await reunions
Hundreds of people on an Air India flight forced to land in Russia are headed back to San Francisco, flight tracker says.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Air India's rescue flight out of Magadan-Sokol, Russia has departed is now headed for San Francisco, according to Flight Radar 24.

The flight time from Russia to San Francisco International Airport is expected to last eight hours.

Video is the player above is from a previous report

Hundreds of people on an Air India flight were forced to land in Russia while en route to SFO on Tuesday.

Air India tweeted a video of a new plane leaving Mumbai overnight. The plane is delivering essentials and food to the stranded passengers in Magadan, Russia. The aircraft would then help those passengers to San Francisco.

Flight AI173 was carrying 216 passengers and 16 crew members when it was diverted, according to Air India. The plane was reportedly experiencing engine problems.

Passenger Girvaan Singh Kahma shared cellphone video, giving others a glimpse from the ground in Russia.

"None of us was used to the climate," he described. "And it was bitter cold for all of us."

RELATED: Air India flight bound for San Francisco diverted to Russia over technical issue

Many passengers have taken to social media, sharing photos and videos of sleeping arrangements and accommodations there. The content shows varying degrees of discomfort.

"There are toddlers," Kahma shared. "There are elderly people who need medicine, toddlers who need diapers which are not provided to them right now."

From her home in Kolkatta, India, Chhaya Agarwal told ABC7 News her elderly parents are passengers.

"There are no beds, they are sleeping on the floor on a mattress. I know this much, that they've been given bottles of water," she said, after connecting with her parents. "And luckily my parents had the presence of mind to carry their medications in their handbags."

VIDEO: Stranded SFO-bound Air India passengers describe scene in Russia as they await 'ferry flight'

Elderly who need medicine, toddlers who need diapers. Passengers have shared photos and videos of accommodations in Russia, showing varying degrees of discomfort.

ABC7 talked with Sumita and her husband Raj Wednesday night, who say their parents were on the flight.

Sumita says given the current tensions between the U.S. and Russia, she was worried about what might happen to those on board.

"You know the no fly zone. I don't know the exact thing. That was the only thing that was worrying us. How do we reach them if there's an emergency? Will the plane be allowed to fly from there to the U.S.?" Sumita said.

Passengers, though, have said they've been treated well by both Air India and Russian authorities.

ABC7 News talked to a passenger before their departure from Russia. She showed us the school where she and her fellow travelers had spent the evening.

"They have cooked food for 200 people three times in a day. So we're good. We got coffee, we got warm milk, we got eggs. So everybody is safe," the passenger said.

Back here in California, Sumita believes the experience has created a bond between most of the passengers. She says many of them are chipping in to help one another and ensure everyone has what they need.

"My mom she always says when you're sad or feeling down, listen to music. So she was singing an Indian song and all the passengers were listening to her," Sumita said.

And when the moment of being reunited finally comes, Sumita says she believes this time, it'll be especially sweet.

"Usually I don't get a welcome balloon, but I'm thinking this time I will," she said.

Here in the States, added concern comes amid the ongoing war in Ukraine. A State Department Deputy Spokesperson confirmed it's likely American citizens are on-board.

"The State Department warns it's not safe for Americans to go to Russia. So, I would be concerned if I was on that plane," Clint Henderson, who works for international travel website The Points Guy, said.

Another concern is the remoteness of where the passengers are stranded, Magadan is located in the country's far East.

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"Ideally you would be at a hotel. There would be enough hotel rooms for passengers to get off the flight. In this case, it looks like a basketball court was converted into a makeshift sleeping quarters for the passengers," Henderson said.

Russia has banned numerous Western countries from operating in its airspace- though some carriers like Air India continue to fly over Russia.

A fact that will probably ensure that everyone on board, including any Americans, will be allowed to safely return home, says Steve Fish, a political scientist professor at U.C. Berkeley.

"At the same time, we're dealing here with Putin, who has not been known recently for taking any kind of sane policies," Fish said.

Fish says Russia will probably not want to disrupt its relatively good relations with India over this incident - especially given the international attention it's receiving.

"I'm sure that American officials, as well as Indian officials, are keeping a very close eye on this," said Fish.

However, India has maintained a neutral stance throughout the war. So it isn't causing too much worry overseas.

"The Indians, the adults, the senior citizens, the children, the infants and toddlers who might be without formula without milk without nutrition, their medicines... I'm more concerned about that right now," Agarwal shared. "That's my priority."

She said her parents make the trip to the Bay Area annually and have never experienced such a turbulent trip.

"They would have reached my brother's house, sitting with my brother and my sister-in-law over a cup of coffee and enjoying a meal within 22-hours of their leaving India," she said.

Agarwal described, "They're saying, 'We're enjoying ourselves,' making the most of the situation. associating the 'flight family' as of now, they are very supportive. Everybody is helping everybody and the youngsters are helping the seniors and things like that. So I think God exists."

Despite border restrictions currently in place not allowing flights from Russia to the US, Air India says the "ferry" aircraft will be the one to take all passengers and crew onward to SFO.

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