Bhanot, daring woman, who saved lots of people from near death and Pan AM flight 73 hijaking (1986)

Neerja Bhanot. Social

Neerja Bhanot, The
Above image: Pan Am flight no. 73 flight attendant, Indian woman Neerja Bhanot.(1963 – 1986)

The misconception, that women  and men are poles apart  in  terms of ability,  confidence and intellect,  the former constituting  the weaker section of the society and the latter embodiment of bravery and achievement,  has been there for a long time. It is a tough job for women to  grow up in societies where  there is an  apparent gender discrimination.  Though by nature, they are physically weak, their intellectual   achievement, determination and commitments are in no way inferior to men. In a given situation, if an opportunity arises, women can raise to the occasion and establish a name for themselves  and for the country they are living in.  In India, Rani  Mangammal,  Queen  Velu Nacihyar,  Dr. Muthulakshmi   Reddy  of  Tamil  Nadu,  Ms. Acchamma Kurian, Parukutty Nethyar Amma  of Kerala,  Bachendri Pal, Madam Cama, Ms. Sarla Thakral  and scores of Indian women achieved name and success in their own ways  purely on their merit. 

At Karachi airport. 1986 Pan Am flight 73

But  when a calamity strikes  from no where, putting  many people's lives  in danger,  the  correct decision  of a person in charge of  such a difficult  situation  is very significant. His/her  decision - making, timing,  presence of mind in a risky situation, proper exit plan and the ability to coordinate them all into a single action  play a key role and determine the difference between life and death of  people in danger.  Such a scary and  tense  situation unexpectedly unfolded right before one  Ms. Neerja Bhanot, a flight attendant on  Pan Am Flight 73 originated  from Bombay to New York via Frankfurt.

  Ms. Neerja  Bhanot, born in, Changigargh, Punjab was the daughter of Rama Bhanot and Harish Bhanot, Bombay based journalist. She had her education at  Sacred Heart Senior Secondary School, Chandigarh, Bombay Scottish School  and St. Xavier's College, Mumbai.  Her arranged marriage did not go  well due to  dowry problem and soon after her separation from her husband, she  got  a job with Pan AM, an  American Airline company.  Upon her training in Miami Florida, she returned to Bombay  and joined Pan Am as Purser.  The ill-fated  flight from  Mumbai  to  Frankfurt and then on to New York, was  hijacked by a  dreaded  terrorist group called  Abu Nidal Organization, founded by Abu Nidal. It was  a splinter group away from Yasser Arafat's Fatah  faction of the PLO in 1974 and was mainly backed by Libya. The group has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, Israel, and the European Union . 

The South West Asia situation was  politically volatile over the issue of a separate Palestinian land and the relationship between some of the  Arab  states with Israel was very  much strained. The  hardcore terrorists  were supporters  of  the Palestinians and their causes. Since many of the western counties, in particular, America  were supporters of Israel, there were widespread protests against America in many Arab countries.  The heavily armed hijackers apparently posed as security guards, boarded the plane at Bombay  on September 05, 1986  an hijacked the  Pan Am flight while it was landed in Karachi at 5 a.m from Mumbai, India. Ms. Bhanot alerted the cockpit crew  consisting of three American pilots,  who  somehow managed to escape from the cockpit.  With no cockpit communication contact with the ATC, the hijackers had to deal with authorities directly.  Now the responsibility fell on Ms. Bhanot, senior purser to save the passengers from death and pain. The  terrorists,  upon their entry into the flight,  asked Bhanot to collect passports of all the passengers  so that they could  identify the Americans and kill them one by one.  The escape of the pilots in the cockpit  was an act of cowardice.  ''The absence of the flight crew would be in certain situations, an advantage. But in this particular case, it proved a questionable decision. "It is totally unacceptable practice for the commander of an aircraft to escape with his crew when there is a hijacking." says Air-India's Captain V.P. Raol

There were 380  passengers, mostly Indians, Americans, Italians, Germans and other nationalities plus the crew. Realizing the ghostly and grave  situation  into which the passengers had been pushed into,  she  thought  the first  victims were the innocent  Americans, including women and kids. Bhanot, with presence of mind, along with her equally attentive  junior attendants, hid all the passports of 41 Americans  so that they could be safe from the clutches of sure death and mayhem. Because of lack of power supply in side the plane it was pitch dark. The unfortunate passengers were  literally in a hell. But the hijackers after 16 hours of terrorizing the innocent hostages  set explosives in the flight and began to shoot. Undaunted, determined to save the lives of passengers, she had managed to have one of the emergency doors opened  and  deployed the slide on to the tarmac roughly 15 feet down. Ms. Bhanot  evacuated the people safely through the slide. Ms. Bhanot could' ve escaped first  along  with other passengers but she  stayed aboard the plane  long enough  to save as many passengers  as  she could.  In the process of protecting three children from a hail of bullets, she was felled down  by the hijackers. In all, 22 people were killed and more than 100 wounded. Among  the total passengers, 25% were Indians out of which  60% of them were dead. The five men were arrested by the Pakistani authorities.  The 16 hour long siege came to a tragic end  when the Pakistani commandos stormed the plane.  Immediately the hijackers began shooting  and throwing hand grenades at the passengers and crew they had herded into one area of the plane, according to court papers presented at the U.S. trial of  Safarini.  Apparently many passengers escaped in the 10 minute interval before the real ordeal. Because of damage, only one  emergency door was functional. Many lives were saved by the crews led by Ms. Bhanot through only available emergency door.

Ms. Bhanot was posthumously  awarded with the highest civilian military  award that is Ashoka Chakra  for her bravery and she is the youngest person to get that covetous award  from the Indian  government.   Her daring act in a worst and trying situation  reflected  superior level of  sacrifice   and dedication towards her duty.  

Unwinding  the past tragic, nightmarish  event,  Neerja’s parents, Harish and Rama Bhanot said, '' ...........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.”

Pan Am flight 73 and hijackers 1986, Karchi airport.

killers of Ms. Bhanot, Pan Am hijacking 1986

Above image: The hijackers are Wadoud Muhammad Hafiz al-Turki, Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim, Muhammad Abdullah Khalil Hussain ar- Rahayyal, and Muhammad Ahmed al-Munawar. These images were created by the FBI laboratory using age-progression technology and original photographs obtained by the FBI in the year 2000, a media release said.  Worst violence was let loose on the tarmac of Karachi airport . I t is said Pakistan played a suspicious role in this horrible hijaking .......................................  

These hard-core terrorists  are  members of the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO), previously on the U S State Department's list of designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Each of them currently are on the list of FBI's most wanted................... terrorists

The hijackers, were captured by Pakistan, the court sentenced  them to death in 1988; later they commuted to life in prison. In 2001, Zayed Hassan Abd Al-Latif Masud Al Safarini, one of the the hijackers who shot the passengers, was captured by the FBI in Bangkok  and  he is serving  a 160-year prison term in Colorado.  Pakistan released four others in January, 2008 from  Adyala Jail. The FBI announced a bounty of $ 6 million on their heads. One of them  Abdul Rahim,  it is believed, was  killed in a drone  attack in the tribal areas of North west Province.

Neerja Bhanot,

Ms. Bhanot received several  awards for her bravery in the face of death  that include:

01.  Flight Safety Foundation Heroism Award, U.S.A in 2006.   

02. Tamgha-e-Insaaniyat (Awarded for showing incredible human kindness), Pakistan.

03. Justice for Crimes Award, United States Attorney’s office for the District of Columbia in 2005.

04. Special Courage award, US Govt.

05. Indian Civil Aviation Ministry's Award.

06. Mumbai's  suburb Ghatkopar (East) was named Bhanot Chowk after Neerja  and the  function was inaugurated by Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan in the early 1990s.

                                               (minor revision made 4 December 2021)