Neerja Bhanot: The Heroine of Hijacked Pan Am Flight 73
Neerja was the senior flight purser on the ill-fated Pan Am Flight 73, which was hijacked by four terrorists after landing at Karachi from Mumbai.
PA 73 was en route to Frankfurt and onward to New York City.
Bhanot alerted the American cockpit crew about the hijack and, as the plane was on the tarmac, despite being tackled, she helped the three-member cockpit crew of pilot, co-pilot and the flight engineer escape from the aircraft.
Bhanot, being the most senior cabin crew member left on board, then took charge.
The hijackers were part of the Libya backed Abu Nidal Terrorist Organization and instructed Neerja to collect the passenger’s passports so they could identify the Americans.
She and the other attendants under her charge hid the passports of the 41 Americans on board – some under a seat and the rest down a rubbish chute so the hijackers could not differentiate between American and Non-American citizens.
After 17 hours, the hijackers opened fire and set off explosives whereupon Neerja sprang into action opening the emergency door, flinging open a chute and helping a number of passengers escape
She could have been the first to jump out when she opened the door but decided rather to stay and help and eventually laid down her life while shielding three children from a hail of bullets fired by the terrorists.
The hijackers were captured by Pakistan, tried, convicted and sentenced to death in 1988.
Their sentences were later commuted to life in prison.
In 2001, Zayd Hassan Abd Al-Latif Masud Al Safarini, one of the hijackers who shot the passengers, was captured by the FBI in Bangkok after being released by Pakistan.
He is currently serving 160-year prison term in Colorado. Four others were freed from Pakistan’s Adyala Jail in January 2008. The FBI announced a $5 million bounty on their heads.
In Her Honor
Neerja Bhanot was recognized internationally as “the heroine of the hijack” and is the youngest recipient of the Ashok Chakra Award, India’s highest peacetime military decoration awarded for valor, courageous action or self-sacrifice away from the battlefield.
In 2004 the Indian Postal Service also released a stamp commemorating her.
With the insurance money and an equal contribution from Pan Am for using their brand name in the title, Bhanot’s parents set up the 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 another to an Indian woman who, when faced with social injustice helps other women in similar social distress.
A square called Neerja Bhanot Chowk is named after her in Mumbai’s East suburb by the Mumbai Municipal Corporation. It was inaugurated by Amitabh Bachchan in the early 1990s.