On September 5, 1986 Neerja Bhanot, an Indian head Purser was shot dead while protecting three children on a hijacked plane. Neerja has been an inspiration to many, and she was recognized internationally as “The Heroine Of Hijacking.”
Neerja Bhanot adored legendary actor Rajesh Khanna and often played hypothetical situations in her head, once she asked her mother to suggest what to do in case of a plane hijack? Her mother simply told her what every mother would say “Agar aisa hue toh bhaag jaana,(if something like this ever happens, run and hide).
To which she replied to her mother confidently, “Mummy, tumhari jaisi maa hongi to desh ka kya hoga? Mar jaungi leking bhagungi nahi” (If all mothers think like you what will happen to our country? I’d rather die than run away.)
Little did she knew that her hypothetical situation will turn into a horrific reality – On 5 September 1986, Neerja Bhanot lost her life while trying to save passengers on Pan Am Flight 73, which had been hijacked from Karachi.
Who was Neerja Bhanot?
“The Heroine of Hijack,” Neerja Bhanot was born on 7th September 1963 in Chandigarh, India, to Harish Bhanot and Rama Bhanot, she also had two brothers, Akhil and Aneesh. She was the darling of her family and everyone called her“Lado.” Her father worked as a journalist and her mother was a housewife. She was a huge fan of legendary actor Rajesh Khanna and used to refer to quotes from his movies throughout her life.
At the age of 19, she was married to a marine engineer and moved to Sarjah, UAE. But after two months of abuse, including starvation, threats, verbal taunts, she left her husband and returned to her home, and decided to become a flight attendant.
Neerja applied for a flight attendant job with Pan Am, and upon selection, she went to Miami, Florida for training as a flight attendant, but returned a purser. She also had a successful modeling career during her work at Pan Am, she endorsed brands like Bianca toothpaste, Forhans, and Godrej.
Neerja Bhanot and Pan Am Flight 73
Two days before her 23rd birthday Neerja Bhanot was appointed as the Senior Flight Purser on Pan Am Flight 73 flying from Bombay(Mumbai) to The United States.
Pan Am Flight 73 was a Pan American World Airways flight from Bombay, India to New York, United States, with scheduled stops in Karachi, Pakistan, and Frankfurt, West Germany.
Pan Am Flight 73 was carrying 365 passengers and 13 crew members on board, during its stopover in Karachi, four armed Palestinian men of the Abu Nidal Organization(terrorist organization backed by Libya) hijacked the aircraft. The attackers were dressed as Karachi airport security guards and were armed with assault rifles, pistols, grenades, and plastic explosive belts.
Neerja quickly alerted the cockpit crew by using the hijack code. The terrorists wanted to fly the plane to Cyprus, they were targeting Americans and American assets. In the early minutes of the hijacking, they identified an Indian America Citizen, dragged him to the exit, and shot him to make a statement.
Palestinian men ordered Neerja to collect the passports of all the passengers, so they could identify American people on the board. As the most senior cabin crew member, Neerja took the charge, she and her crew hid 43 American passports under the seats in the trash chute. So the hijackers could not differentiate between American and non-American passengers.
Neerja worked smartly, it is said, she kept the passengers’ and crew members’ anxieties in control for 17 hours as she served sandwiches and beverages and tried to boost their morale. But after 17 hours they opened fire, Neerja worked fast and helped as many passengers evacuate as she could, even though she could have been the first one to jump out and flee from the aircraft.
According to the surviving passengers, “She was guiding the passengers to the emergency exit. That is when the terrorists were firing constantly fearing a commando attack. They saw Neerja relentlessly trying to help three unaccompanied children, among others, out and that is when they caught her by her ponytail and shot her point-blank.”
Out of 44 American citizens, she managed to save 42, two were killed during the hijack. A 7-year-old child who was on board during the hijacking is now a captain for a major airline and has stated that Neerja Bhanot has been his inspiration, and he owes every day of his life to her. Due to her bravery, Neerja was recognized internationally as “The Heroine of Hijacking.”
In addition to saving many lives, she had also helped prevent the plane from getting off the ground. Neerja posthumously received multiple awards for her courage from the United States government, and the Tamgha-e-Pakistan from Pakistan – this award is given for showing great human kindness.
The four hijackers were later identified as Zayd Hassan Abd al-Latif Safarini, Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim, Muhammad Abdullah Khalil Hussain ar-Rahayyal, and Muhammad Ahmed Al-Munawar. On July 6, 1988, the hijackers were convicted in Pakistan for their roles in the hijacking and murders and sentenced to death, but later their sentences were commuted to life in prison.
Neerja Bhanot’s Legacy
Neerja was posthumously awarded the Ashok Chakra Award, by the Government of India. Ashok Chakra Award is India’s highest gallantry award for bravery in the face of the enemy during peacetime.
“Her loyalties to the passengers of the aircraft in distress will forever be a lasting tribute to the finest qualities of the human spirit”.Ashok Chakra citation.
She is the youngest and the first female recipient of this award. In 2004 Indian Postal service released a stamp commemorating her.
In 2016, “Neerja” a Bollywood movie was released, which is the story of the courageous Neerja Bhanot, who sacrificed her life to save the lives of hundreds of passengers on the Pan Am Flight 73 in 1986.
The Neerja I Knew – a coffee table book conceptualized by Neerja’s brother, Aneesh Bhanot as a tribute to her sister, consisting of several chapters by many people who knew her.
Neerja’s story continues to inspire young women around the world. Her family used the funds from Pan Am to set up Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust. The trust presents two awards every year, one for a flight crew member, worldwide, who acts beyond the call of duty and the other award – the Neerja Bhanot award – to an Indian woman who when faced with social injustice, bravely faced the situation and helped other women in similar social distress.
Now that you’ve read about the life of Neera Bhanot, read about Zaevion Dobson who lost his life while shielding three teenage girls.