Neerja Bhanot was a Mumbai-based Pan Am flight attendant who was murdered on September 5 1986 by terrorists who had hijacked Pan Am Flight 73. The Neerja Story is one of valor, courage, kindness, and determination in a life and death high pressure situation.
Neerja was posthumously awarded the Ashok Chakra by the Indian government. It is the highest military peacetime award for bravery and she is the youngest recipient of the award.
Neerja was born on September 7 1963 in Chandigarh, India, to Hindustan Times journalist Harish Bhanot and Rama Bhanot. After finishing her education at St. Xavier’s College, she went on to become one of the top models, endorsing a number of brands from Amul to Benzer Sarees. In 1985, she had an arranged marriage and moved to the Middle East with her husband. She however returned to Mumbai within 2 months due to dowry harassment. Neerja then applied for a job as a flight attendant with Pan Am, got selected, went to Miami for training, and returned as a purser. Upon her death, she was doing her job of an air hostess along with her modeling career.
The hijack of Pan Am Flight 73
The Pan Am Flight 73 was flying from Mumbai to NYC, with stops at Karachi and Frankfurt. When the plane was on the tarmac at the Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport, 4 heavily armed terrorists in airport security uniform boarded and seized control of the plane. Neerja alerted the cockpit crew, consisting of the pilot, co-pilot, and flight engineer of the terrorist attack. The crew escaped trough a hatch in the cockpit, leaving Neerja and the other Indian flight attendants in lurch.
As the most senior crew member on the plane, Neerja then took care of the passengers. When the terrorists asked for the passports of American passengers, she released that they were targeting Americans. She hid many of the passports and even disposed some of them via the rubbish chute. After 17 hours of hostage crisis, the terrorists opened fire indiscriminately to kill the passengers, after the lights went out in the plane. Neerja opened the emergency door and let out all the passengers. She could have been the first to leave, but she did not. She died while shielding 3 children from gun fire.
The Pakistan Rangers and SSG Division battalion managed to neutralize and arrest the terrorists. In all, there were 360 passengers and 19 crew members on-board the plane. 20 people died and about 150 people were injured. If Neerja had not acted bravely and wisely, the causalities would have been much higher.
What happened to the Pan Am Hijackers?
The hijackers belonged to the Abu Nidal Organization, a terrorist outfit. The men were arrested by Pakisan, convicted and sentenced to death in the year 1988. But their death sentence was later commuted to life sentence.
In 2001, one of the terrorists, Zayd Hassan Ab-Latif Masud Al Safarini who was released, was captured by FBI in Bangkok and sentenced to 160 years in prison. Three others were released by Pakistan in 2008 but they are being sought by FBI. It was announced in 2010 by Pakistani Intellience that one of the killers Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim, was killed in a drone attack, but it has been not confirmed.
A jury ruling in 2001 stated that the terrorists were actually planning to take the hijacked plane to collect their Palestinian accomplices arrested in Israel and Cyprus. Michael Thexton, one of the survivors on Pan Am 73 wrote a book on the incident, in which he said that hijackers actually wanted to crash the plane in a target location in Israel, as was done in 9/11.
Sonam Kapoor as Neerja Bhanot
The soon-to-be-released Bollywood movie ‘Neerja Bhanot’ starring Sonam Kapoor is based on her life.
Neerja Bhanot – Pictures (including childhood and family)
Neerja Bhanot in News (Archives)
In 2004, the Indian Postal Service released a stamp bearing her image.