Meet the Hero Who Sacrificed Herself to Save 360 Passengers From Terrorists 33 Years Ago
"She was the ‘captain,’ who believed that she had to be the last person to quit — alive or dead.”
The heroic act of an Indian flight attendant who sacrificed herself to save the lives of hundreds of passengers from Palestinian terrorists hijacking their plane in 1986 is remembered in history for the 33rd year this month.
Neerja Bhanot, who was killed at 22, posthumously became the youngest recipient of the Ashoka Chakra Award, India’s highest peacetime military decoration for “most conspicuous bravery or some daring or pre-eminent valour or self-sacrifice other than in the face of the enemy.”
Born to a Punjabi family on Sept. 7, 1963, Bhanot spent her early childhood in their home city of Chandigarh, where she was raised by her parents, Harish Bhanot, a journalist at the Hindustan Times, and Rama Bhanot, with two older brothers Akhil and Aneesh.
The family eventually moved to Mumbai, where she graduated from college and began a modeling career, which she continued to pursue while working as a flight attendant.
In March 1985, Bhanot, 21, wed a businessman in an ad-based arranged marriage that turned out to be the worst two months of her life to that point. According to her father, she found herself “starved off finance and food,” losing 5 kilograms (11 pounds) of weight in that period.
“Of the 23 years of her life, she had lived 22 years and 10 months under bracing sunshine,” Mr. Bhanot — who died in 2008 — wrote, according to the Hindustan Times:
“The two month long ugly patch was a dowry cloud. Following her ad-based arranged marriage in March 1985, she had gone to the Gulf to join her husband to set up a happy home. But the marriage went sour within two months. She was starved off finance and food in a foreign land and the bright girl lost 5 kilograms (11 pounds) of weight in two months. She had to borrow money from the husband even to make a telephone call.”
Bhanot bounced back from her failed marriage and applied to work as a flight attendant for Pan American Airways (Pan Am) later that year, when the carrier started hiring an all-Indian cabin crew for its Frankfurt to India routes.
After being selected, she flew to Miami to train as a flight attendant, but surprised her family when she returned home as a purser (chief flight attendant).
Unfortunately, things took a grim turn on Sept. 5, 1986 — two days before her 23rd birthday — when four armed Palestinian men hijacked Pan Am Flight 73 at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, Pakistan.
The aircraft, which had just arrived from Mumbai, carried 365 passengers and 16 crew members.
The hijackers were part of Abu Nidal Organization (ANO), a nationalist militant group with unclear ideological positions, but reportedly opposed any form of compromise or negotiation with Israel. At the time, they planned to use the plane to retrieve Palestinian prisoners in both Cyprus and Israel.
Disguised as airport security guards, the hijackers possessed assault rifles, pistols, grenades and plastic explosive belts. They seized control of the plane 40 minutes after its landing, but the timely exit of the pilots through an emergency hatch in the cockpit immobilized the craft.
Upon learning that the pilots had escaped, lead hijacker Zayd Hassan Abd al-Latif Safarini, also known as “Mustafa,” was forced to negotiate with officials. Around 10:00 a.m., after ordering first- and business-class passengers to move to the back — and ordering those at the back to come forward — Safarini used Rajesh Kumar, a 29-year-old Indian American, to negotiate for a new pilot crew.
Safarini, who gave officials 15 minutes to send new pilots, eventually grew impatient and shot Kumar in front of witnesses on and off the plane. It was after that chilling moment when he ordered Bhanot, the senior flight purser, to collect the passports of all passengers.
Convinced that the hijackers would single out American passengers, Bhanot and attendants under her watch began to hide some American passports under seats and threw others in a waste chute. After collecting the passports, Bhanot proceeded to the intercom and asked for passenger Michael John Thexton, a British citizen.
Thexton faced Safarini, who prepared to shoot him if the negotiating official, Viraf Daroga, head of Pan Am’s Pakistan operation, did not deliver a pilot. Safarini released Thexton after Daroga informed that a crew member on board was able to use the cockpit radio for further negotiation, but the stalemate continued into the night.
At the time, Bhanot secretly removed a page from a manual that explained how to open the 3R aircraft door and exit through a slide down to the apron. She hid this page inside a magazine, which she then handed over to a passenger.
Around 9:00 p.m., the auxiliary power unit shut down, turning all lighting off. As emergency lights went on, passengers were again ordered to move.
The bloodbath began when the hijackers tried to cause a massive explosion that would kill everyone on board, including themselves. But because it was dark, the attempt missed and only caused a small detonation.
Shortly after, the hijackers turned to their bullets, which caused the most damage. At this point, Bhanot opened a door and helped passengers escape.
Two other doors were opened during the bloodbath: one by another attendant, and another by the passenger who received Bhanot’s page, which was the only exit opened to have a slide deploy.
Bhanot, who could have escaped since opening one of the doors, chose to remain on board. She was ultimately shot while shielding three children from the hijackers.
“Neerja was caught by the leader of the terrorists and shot point blank,” Mr. Bhanot wrote, citing accounts of eyewitnesses. “In the dead body I saw bullets had hit her in the abdomen, on the shoulder near the neck and in the arm. When she opened the emergency exit, she could have herself been the first to slide down the chute. But she was the ‘captain,’ who believed that she had to be the last person to quit — alive or dead.”
“The shock of being hit by bullets did not stop her heart-beat. She had been bleeding, from at least two bullet wounds, for nearly 15 minutes. But she was in her full senses and told her two colleagues to take care of her bullet-hit arm. With a little assistance, she slid down the chute to be received at the other end by another member of the crew. She was helped to walk to the ambulance. But she became a martyr before any medical assistance could help her to survive.”
A total of 22 people — including Bhanot — died and about 150 more sustained injuries in the hijacking, according to the BBC.
Safarini and the rest of the hijackers, identified as Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim (alias “Fahad”), Muhammad Abdullah Khalil Hussain ar-Rahayyal (alias “Khalil”) and Muhammad Ahmed Al-Munawar (alias “Mansoor”) were arrested. A fifth accomplice, Wadoud Muhammad Hafiz al-Turki (alias “Hafiz”), was captured a week later.
All were sentenced to death in Pakistan, but were later commuted to life in prison.
Aside from the Ashoka Chakra, Bhanot also received posthumous awards from Pakistan and the U.S. In 2004, the Indian Postal Service released a stamp commemorating her bravery.
Interestingly, one of the three children Bhanot had saved, then aged 7, became a captain of a major airline, according to One India. The outlet said Bhanot is “her inspiration,” meaning that the now-successful pilot is also female.
Bhanot’s legacy remains with her family’s establishment of the annual Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust, which reportedly presents an award for a flight crew member who “acts beyond the call of duty and another,” and the Neerja Bhanot Award, to an Indian woman who bravely faces social injustice and extends help to other women in similar situations. The award includes a sum of 150,000 Indian rupees (around $2,100) a trophy and a citation.
Bhanot’s life also inspired the 2016 film “Neerja”, starring Bollywood actress Sonam Kapoor. She personally met Bhanot’s mother, Rama, before the latter died in 2015.