Section I — Pan Am Flight 73
It was the morning of September 5, 1986. The aircraft, Pan Am Flight 73 with 360 passengers on board, had just arrived from Mumbai and was ready to depart from Jinnah International Airport in Karachi for its destination — the United States. Unfortunately, the flight was hijacked by four heavily armed terrorists while it was parked at Karachi airport.
The passengers on the plane hailed from different countries — there were Indians, Germans, Americans, and Pakistanis, among others. The terrorists were more intent on targeting the Americans. When Neerja was told to collect the passports of the passengers, Neerja managed to hide their passports and discard them down the rubbish chute. With her help at least 39 American passengers were saved out of 41. The hijackers wanted to fly to Israel and crash the plane against a building. On being confronted with this unexpected calamity, Neerja immediately sprang into action. She attempted first and foremost, to alert the pilots in the cockpit of the hijacked plane so that they could save themselves. When the terrorists saw that, they assaulted her. She then passed on the warning in a code, which alerted the pilots. As per the mandate, they made an escape through the alternate exit so that the terrorists were at a loss of pilots who could be forced to fly the plane to the terrorists’ desired location.
The nightmare on the aircraft continued for long. The frustration and helplessness of the terrorists grew every hour and their patience was running out. Seventeen hours into the hijack, the plane ran out of power. The terrorists lost their cool and opened fire on the passengers. Armed with grenades, plastic explosive belts, and pistols, the terrorists raised hell on board. Taking advantage of the chaos and the terrorists’ senselessness, Neerja leapt into action at this point of time. She shed all her hesitation and fears and worked her way around evacuating as many passengers as she could. She could have run away for she knew the escape routes well, but she didn’t. She waited selflessly in the face of death to help the ones around her.
As she was about to exit herself, she noticed three children who were left in the flight. They needed her help in escaping. As the brave-heart rescued the kids, she was hit by the bullets fired by one of the terrorists. The wounds inflicted were fatal, and Neerja eventually succumbed to them. By a cruel twist of fate, this heroic young girl passed away.
Section II — Neerja Bhanhot – Life
Neerja Bhanot was born on 7 September 1963, in Chandigarh, Punjab, India, to Rama Bhanot and Harish Bhanot, a Mumbai-based journalist. She was the couple’s third child, a much longed-for daughter after two sons, Akhil and Aneesh.
Neerja attended Chandigarh’s Sacred Heart School till she was in the 6th standard, after which her family moved to Mumbai. There she attended Bombay Scottish School and went on to graduate from St. Xavier’s College.
Even though Neerja’s career had taken off , her family decided to get her married to a man in Sharjah, UAE. By March 1985, Neerja was married. This is where her life took a turn for the worse. The marriage proved to be a disaster. After two months, she left her husband at the age of 22, due to pressurizing dowry demands. But this woman refused to surrender to the society because she was born with the spirit to fight. Despite a sour marriage, she started her career in modelling and made appearances in various advertisements like Binaca toothpaste etc.
She then applied for a flight attendant’s job with Pan Am, the principal and largest international air carrier in the United States at that time. Only 80 of the 10,000 applicants were picked, and Neerja was one of them. She was sent to Miami to train for 6—8 weeks, and within a year, based on performance and peer review, she was sent to London to train to be a purser – the senior most cabin manager. Pursers worked as managers on flights, handling passenger complaints, making required announcements and handling security. She was soon made a senior flight purser with the airways — a big career achievement for a young woman of 22.
Section III — Awards, Achievements and Legacy
“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
Neerja’s act of bravery was acknowledged and rewarded by the Indian, Pakistan and American governments. She was awarded the Ashok Chakra, India’s highest honour for bravery in peacetime and she became the youngest civilian to receive it. A postage stamp was also issued in her honour in 2004.
In 2005, her brother went to Washington DC to receive the ‘Justice for Crimes Award’ awarded posthumously to her as part of the ‘Annual Crime Rights Week’. She also received the Tamgha-e-Insaniyat award.
Her parents set up the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust with insurance money and funds from Pan Am for using the brand Pan Am in the title. The trust presents two awards every year, one to honour a flight crew member, worldwide, who acts beyond the call of duty and another to an Indian woman who overcomes social injustice and helps other women in similar social distress. The award includes a sum of INR 1,50,000, a trophy and a citation.
One of the children who this brave flight purser saved during a hijacking incident in 1986 is now a captain of a major airline.
Some people shine even after death and she was among them. Even the streets of Mumbai couldn’t forget her. A square in Mumbai’s Ghatkopar (East) suburb was named after her by the Mumbai Municipal Corporation.
State Council of Educational Research and Training (2019). Term-3 English Standard-7. A Story of Self Sacrifice and Bravery (pp. 105-111). Published by the Tamil Nadu Textbook and Educational Services Corporation.