India’s brave flight attendant Neerja Bhanot sacrificed her own life to save so many others on a hijacked Pan Am flight on September 5, 1986, just two days before her birthday on September 7.
Bhanot was the senior flight purser on the ill-fated Pan Am Flight 73, which was hijacked by four heavily armed terrorists after it landed at Karachi at 5 am from Mumbai. PA 73 was en route to Frankfurt and onward to New York City. Bhanot alerted the cockpit crew about the hijack and, as the plane was on the tarmac, the three-member American cockpit crew of pilot, co-pilot, and the flight engineer fled from the aircraft. Bhanot, being the most senior cabin crew member on board, took charge.
Born on September 7, 1973, in Chandigarh, Neerja was the favourite child of her parents Rama Bhanot and Harish Bhanot. Her father was a journalist. At the age of 21, Neerja got married. However, she divorced her husband who demanded dowry. Later, she applied for the Pan Am Flight Attendant job and got selected. Additionally, she did modelling for Vicco, Binaca Toothpaste, Godrej Detergent etc products.
On September 5, 1986, Pan AM 73 Flight which was about to travel from Mumbai to New York with 365 passengers and 19 crew members on board was hijacked. Abu Nidal Terrorist group hijacked the flight at Karachi Airport. Bhanot was the senior flight purser on the flight. When she informed the three-member cockpit crew of pilot, co-pilot and the flight engineer they immediately left the aircraft through an overhead hatch in the cockpit.
As the senior-most cabin crew member, Bhanot took charge of the situation. Terrorists were targeting Americans mostly, so she and her team tried to save them by hiding their passports and she succeeded in that. She was shot while shielding 3 American children from a hail of gunfire from the terrorists.
Bhanot’s calm courage and quick instincts led to a slew of posthumous awards, including the Ashoka Chakra, India’s highest peacetime gallantry award. She was the first woman and youngest recipient of the award. Her citation states: “Her loyalties to the passengers of the aircraft in distress will forever be a lasting tribute to the finest qualities of the human spirit.”