This is the story of Neerja Bhanot the senior flight attendant, who helped a number of passengers escape from a hijacked flight.
Who was Neerja Bhanot? What happened?
During the morning of September 5, 1986, Pan Am Flight 73 landed in Karachi. It had arrived from Mumbai and departed for Frankfurt onward to New York City. The flight was carrying, among members of other nationalities, Indians, Germans, Americans, and Pakistanis.
Unfortunately, the flight was hijacked while it was parked on the tarmac at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi.
Four heavily-armed terrorists, dressed as airport security guards had entered the aircraft whilst firing shots from an automatic weapon and seized control of the plane.
After the terrorists boarded the plane, Neerja alerted the cockpit crew, who escaped through an overhead hatch in the cockpit. As the senior-most crew member remaining on board, this left Neerja in charge.
One of the terrorists asked the flight crew to collect and hand over the passports of all passengers on board. When Neerja realised that the primary targets of the terrorists were American passengers, she hid their passports – even discarding some of them down the rubbish chute. From a total of 41 American passengers, only 2 were killed, thanks to her.
After holding passengers and crew members hostage for almost 17 hours on the runway, the terrorists opened fire.
She would have escaped by the emergency exit first, but being the iron woman she gave up her life to save the innocents like a mother. In the end she was shot while shielding three children from the bullets being fired by the terrorists.
Neerja’s family suffered a huge loss post the same.
“Neerja was the ‘laado’ of the family, the youngest and most pampered. My parents had wished for her, and in a news article after her death, my father had mentioned how, when she was born on September 7, 1962, the maternity ward matron here at Chandigarh hospital rang up to inform, it’s a girl. To her surprise, he gave her double thanks, for Neerja was a prayer answered after two sons,” recalls Aneesh,her brother.
‘Neerja was a very sensitive, deeply affectionate and an extremely decent person who believed in sharing with her people all her joys but not the jolts. She had well defined principles and there was little room for compromise in that area’ states her father.
Neerja Bhanot was awarded the Ashok Chakra, India’s highest peacetime military decoration for the “most conspicuous bravery or some daring or pre-eminent valour or self-sacrifice”, and the Tamgha-e-Insaniyat, awarded by the Pakistan government for showing incredible kindness. She also received multiple awards for her courage from the United States government.
Neerja Bhanot is the youngest Ashok Chakra winner in India!
Today her spirit is kept alive by the Bhanot family in numerous ways possible. With the insurance money that they received after her death and an equal contribution from Pan Am, they set up the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust.
Through the Trust, they present two awards of Rs. 1,50,000 every year – one to an Indian woman who faces social injustice but overcomes it and helps other women in similar situations, and one to honour an airline crew member who acts beyond the call of duty.