Neerja Bhanot: The World’s Bravest Flight Attendant
One of the first flight attendants to become a true hero
Neerja Bhanot started working as a flight attendant with Pan Am in 1985. She had previously worked as a model and while welcoming the new opportunity, continued to do so during her time at Pan Am. The airline had decided that they wanted to have Indian flight attendants onboard the flights between Frankfurt and destinations in India. Neerja was quickly promoted to the role of flight purser.
On that day
Neerja was senior flight purser on that fateful day of September 5th, 1986. Flight 73 was flying between Bombay and the USA, with stops in Karachi and Frankfurt. The ‘Clipper of the Seas’ had 379 passengers and crew onboard. At 06.00, on the ground at Karachi Jinnah Airport, terrorists boarded the aircraft and hijacked it. Neerja managed to enter the emergency code to the flight deck, which enabled them to escape the aircraft through the hatch in the cockpit. This immobilized the aircraft during the hijack.
Realizing the difficulty of the situation, as per her role, Neerja took charge of what was happening inside the aircraft and kept herself and her team calm. The terrorists were part of the Abu Nidal Organization that wanted to take the aircraft to Cyprus to release some Palestinian prisoners being held there. They were targeting American passengers and dragged one Indian American passenger to the exit, before shooting him and throwing his body off the aircraft.
After four hours, the terrorists asked Neerja to collect all of the passports from the people onboard, so that they could identify the American passengers. She and her crew members hid the American passports under seats and in a garbage chute, so that they would not be identified, saving lives of those onboard. During the hijacking, she continued to smile and serve passengers food and drink and tried to comfort them.
After 17 hours, the terrorists opened fire in the cabin and lit explosives. The flight attendants were paraded and regularly held with guns to their heads, especially when the terrorists wanted to see what was going on outside the aircraft. Eventually, Neerja managed to open an exit door to allow some passengers to escape via the emergency slide. She could have chosen to save herself and leave the aircraft but decided to do what she could to help her passengers.
She then turned to help three children down the slide whilst trying to avoid the bullet fire. Unfortunately, the terrorists saw her helping people escape and grabbed her by the hair, and shot her in the head at point-blank range. It was just two days before her 23rd birthday, and she became one of 20 fatalities.
Posthumously, Neerja was awarded three awards for her courage and bravery from India, Pakistan and the USA. The Ashoka Chakra Award for gallantry was awarded to her in India, where she became the youngest person as well as the first female ever to receive it. In 2004, the Indian Postal Service produced a postage stamp in her honor. In 2016, a movie was made about her and the hijacking. Interestingly, one of the child survivors from that very flight later became an airline pilot after being inspired by Neerja’s actions that day.
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