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Hijack victims' 24-year ordeal continues

Survivors of a 1986 terrorist attack on Pan Am 73 in Pakistan faced a nightmare together. Now, a tangle of lawsuits over $150 million in compensation from Libya is pitting them against one another.

The sisters slumped against the bulkhead of the Boeing 747, pretending they were dead.

As five terrorists sprayed the darkened cabin with gunfire and lobbed grenades, someone opened an over-wing exit two rows ahead. Gargi and Giatri Dave, 10- and 13-year-olds traveling home to California alone after visiting family in India, clambered over the seat backs to the open portal.

Gargi stopped, daunted by the two-story drop to the tarmac. Giatri pushed her through, then jumped herself, injuring both feet. Gargi had landed on her head, and as she slipped in and out of consciousness, her hobbled sister dragged her under the plane, clear of the fusillade fired by the gunmen angry that their hijacking had gone awry.

In the 24 years since the Libyan-backed terror attack on Pan Am Flight 73 in Karachi, Pakistan, Gargi has suffered headaches, flashbacks, memory loss and learning problems. Both sisters still bear the psychological scars of the 16-hour siege during which a fellow American was summarily executed before their eyes. Nineteen other passengers died and more than 120 were injured in the chaotic moments before the terrorists were captured.

The ordeal was life-altering and their treatment has been costly. In 2006, the Dave sisters were asked by the law firm of Crowell & Moring to join 176 other surviving passengers, mostly foreign citizens, in a lawsuit seeking compensation from the regime of Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi, who had been accused of instigating the attack. All pledged to share any monetary recovery and to pay the law firm up to a 35% cut.

In 2008, after years of behind-the-scenes negotiations independent of the Crowell & Moring lawsuit, the U.S. and Libyan governments restored diplomatic relations and agreed to settle all outstanding claims. For the three dozen or so U.S. victims of Pan Am Flight 73, Tripoli provided about $150 million.

Gargi, now a 34-year-old Bay Area lawyer, last year received $3 million. Giatri, a 37-year-old radiation oncologist, is due roughly the same once a U.S. Justice Department agency works through the list of claimants.

But the long-delayed amends by Libya have been cold comfort. The Daves and other American survivors have been compelled to relive the terror in pursuit of the Libyan money, and the law firm and the foreign passengers left out of the bilateral U.S.-Libyan settlement have laid claim to 90% of the Americans' compensation. A tangle of lawsuits and steep attorney fees now threaten to eat up the fund as the fight over who is entitled to it drags on.

The dispute raises complex legal questions and novel issues of terrorism law. Are the American plaintiffs obliged to share their awards with the foreign victims? Are the Crowell & Moring lawyers still entitled to their agreed cut, which could amount to nearly $40 million? Did the foreign nationals have a right to seek redress in U.S. courts because they included a few Americans in their lawsuit?

"Crowell & Moring is trying to take money it had no role in securing for U.S. victims," said Gargi, who has accused the law firm of luring the U.S. survivors into a contract that is neither legal nor enforceable. She and nine others who have joined her in suing the firm also accuse its lawyers of muzzling dissent with threats of further lawsuits for breach of contract and violating a confidentiality clause of the retainer agreement.

Attorney Gargi has taken leave from private practice to assist the veteran human rights lawyer representing the U.S. survivors in challenging the Crowell & Moring contract. Giatri divides her time between Pasadena and Fresno, leaving the legal quagmire for her younger sister.

"I just don't want to be a victim again," the older sister says with an odd alchemy of defiance and fatigue.

***

As the Karachi siege wore on, shouting and gunfire frightened 2-year-old Nilay Shah into inconsolable wailing. His terrified mother, Nilima, tried to calm him, to no avail.

"A terrorist came up to my mom and shoved a gun into my stomach and told my mom, 'If you don't shut him up, I'll blow his brains out,' " Nilay said, recounting what his mother, aunt and grandmother, who also survived the hijacking, had told him over the years.

A website manager for the New York Giants, Shah doesn't remember the bloody melee that left his left hand permanently disfigured after being hit by a bullet. But the ordeal still encroaches on his life and work these two dozen years later. He loathes flying, yet must accompany the NFL team on its away games.

"I can't sit on the aisle," he said of a phobia he can only explain as a legacy of the hijacking. "There's medication that the team doctor gives me to ease anxiety, but it's still hard."

With his left pinky and ring finger fused into a useless claw, Shah has trouble gripping a steering wheel or wielding a knife and fork. His injury prevented him from playing sports, leaving him only his job on professional football's sidelines to indulge a love of competition.

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