The Flight Attendant Who Sacrificed Her Life to Save 360 Lives

The day was 5th September 1986. The Pan Am Flight 73 was to depart from Karachi and fly to New York via Frakfurt. Neerja Bhanot was on board as the senior flight Attendant on Pan Am Flight 73 on that unfateful day. Four armed terrorists dressed as Karachi airport security guards boarded the aircraft at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi. The plane was hijacked. When Neerja Bhanot tried to alert the cockpit crew, the terrorist held her by her ponytail. She still managed to shout out a warning through a secret code. The cockpit crew escaped at once, as per their mandate, so the aircraft couldn’t be flown forcibly.

The terrorists threatened to shoot Rajesh Kumar, a passenger on the flight, if the cockpit crew wasn’t brought back to the aircraft in the next 15 minutes. Rajesh was shot dead, and his body thrown out of the plane. The cockpit crew was gone and the only person who could have saved the day was Neerja. She took charge and fought on, not for herself but for the 360 people trapped inside the aircraft. The terrorists held the cabin crew at gunpoint and ordered them to collect passports of the passengers. Knowing they’d shoot the Americans among them, Neerja swiftly hid their passports, even disposed some off the rubbish chute. There were 41 Americans on board, only two died.

Seventeen hours later, the terrorists opened fire. They were armed with assault rifles, pistols, grenades, and plastic explosive belts. Neerja Bhanot put aside all fears and took charge. She used her presence of mind to get to the emergency exit. She stayed on the plane to help passengers escape, even though she could have been the first to leave.  She opened the emergency exit and helped the passengers evacuate the aircraft. She was shot to death while protecting three children. She took a bullet to protect other people. Twenty people died in that hijack. Neerja died so that 360 others could live, in no small part due to the actions of a 22-year-old flight attendant who chose compassion over cowardice and performed her duty till the very end.

For her actions on the day of the hijacking, Neerja Bhanot was posthumously awarded the Ashok Chakra. Even the Pakistan government bestowed her he Tamgha-e-Insaniyat Award for showing incredible kindness. She also posthumously received multiple awards for her courage from the United States government. A commemorative stamp was released in honour of Neerja. Visibly moved, her mother recounted the memories of her daughter, “I was scared when she did the hijacking course. I even told her to leave her job as I felt it was too dangerous for her. She told me that if all mothers were like me, what would be the fate of this country. When I came to know that her plane had been hijacked, I knew she would not come back. During her short life she managed to give us what not many children can give their parents, the privilege of being able to hold our heads high with pride. Today we are known as Neerja’s parents and we are proud of her.” Neerja Bhanot’s family suffered an unbearable loss when they lost their only daughter. Despite their irreplaceable loss, her parents, Rama and Harish Bhanot, soldiered on, and even found a fitting way to honour Neerja’s memory. 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. There could hardly have been a better way to keep Neerja’s memory alive.

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