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We all have read or heard of NeerjaBhanot somewhere or sometimes as a gorgeous Indian model and purser for the airline Pan American World Airways, based in Mumbai, India. There are some people in and around our so called social-world who have no hint of her as a woman or a human being. Even I would be one of them if I haven’t watched the not-so-recent biographical thriller directed by Ram Madhvani which featured Sonam Kapoor as the title character. The film had succeeded to quite a great extent to depict Neerja’snever-forgiving role to uproot the base of Terrorism by her blatant valor as only a commoner. On one side we, just by the name of terrorists, guns and bullets start to shiver our legs but Neerja had broken this shield of fear in the line of progenies of cowards.
Neerja had lost her life trying to save passengers on Pan Am Flight 73, which was hijacked by terrorists during a stopover in Karachi, Pakistan, on 5 September 1986. Posthumously, she became the youngest recipient of India’s highest peacetime award for bravery, the Ashok Chakra Award.
Early life and education
Neerja Bhanot was born in Chandigarh, India, and brought up in Mumbai in a Punjabi family. She was the daughter of Harish Bhanot, a Mumbai-based journalist, and Rama Bhanot. She had two brothers: Akhil and Aneesh Bhanot. She received her early schooling at Sacred Heart Senior Secondary School in Chandigarh. When the family moved Mumbai, she continued her studies at Bombay Scottish School and then graduated from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai.
Career (modeling and air-hostess)
Bhanot applied for a flight attendant job with Pan Am when in 1985 it decided to have an all Indian cabin crew for its Frankfurt to India routes. Upon selection, she went to Miami, Florida for training as a flight attendant, but returned as a Purser. She also had a successful modeling career simultaneously during her work at Pan Am.
She had been featured in many vintage ads and magazines. Because of the immense amount of products that she had endorsed in the early mid 80s for the Doordarshan Channel, she had been named as an ‘Add queen of 80s’.
Personal life and family ( husband, children, parents)
Neerja Bhanot had an arranged marriage in March 1985 and joined her husband in Doha, Qatar.
However, the marriage soon deteriorated following alleged dowry pressure and she returned to her parents’ home in Mumbai within two months. She had two brothers, Akhil and Aneesh. Her father, Harish Bhanot, worked as a journalist with The Hindustan Times for more than 30 years and died on New Year’s Day in 2008 in Chandigarh at the age of 86. Her mother died on 5th December 2015. She had no children.
The case of PAM AM flight Hijacking
Pan Am Flight 73, a Pan American World Airways Boeing 747-121, was hijacked on September 5, 1986, while on the ground at Karachi, Pakistan, by four armed Palestinian men of the Abu Nidal Organization. The aircraft, with 360 passengers on board, had just arrived from Sahar International Airport in Mumbai, India, and was preparing to depart Jinnah International Airport in Karachi for Frankfurt Airport in Frankfurt am Main, West Germany, ultimately continuing on to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, United States. A June 2001 grand jury charged that the militants were planning to use the hijacked plane to pick up Palestinian prisoners in both Cyprus and Israel.
Forty-three of the passengers were killed during the hijacking; nationals from India, the United States, Pakistan, and Mexico. All the hijackers were arrested and sentenced to death in Pakistan; however, the sentences were later commuted to life in prison. Neerja Bhanot was the head attendant on that flight.
How did Neerja die while saving lives in the hijacked plane?
NeerjaBhanot was a savior, a godmother for the passengers in the air cruise which got hijacked by terrorists during the stopover in Karachi. There were 360 passengers and 19 crew members in total on the board, out of which it had unexpectedly and miraculously 336 survivors. The grace was all of Neerja’swho had given up her up everything till death but never surrendered before bloody terrorists. She acted like a soldier without uniform and id. During saving the passengers, she met with heaven.
There was one savior named, Musician NayanPancholiwho recounts how he lost his eye but survived the Pan Am flight hijack in 1986.
In his own words, he described – “ It was September 5, 1986. Our tickets got confirmed at the last moment on Pan-Am Flight-73, which was headed from Mumbai to New York, via Karachi and Frankfurt. We were a group of singers and music composers from Ahmedabad, who were going to perform in different cities of USA. At that time, I was just 21 years old. Our flight took off from Mumbai and landed in Karachi around 4.30 a.m. There were some passengers who got off at Karachi. Cleaners entered the aircraft and were just about the leave. This is when four armed men in airport security clothes entered the aircraft from the business class side. We were seated in economy class at the rear of the plane.
Suddenly, there were screams and three or four shots were fired in the air. One terrorist had a machine gun in his hand, another had grenades and a belt full of bullets, while the other two had many guns and grenades with them. Everyone was told to have their hands locked above their heads. I just can’t forget that sight. Two terrorists were standing in the front and the other two were standing near the rear. In no time, NeerjaBhanot, the senior flight purser, informed the captain and the other crew members in the cockpit to flee the aircraft.
The captain, the co-pilot, and the cockpit crew had left the aircraft. Except for Neerja, all other flight attendants were tied up with ropes. The terrorists used Neerja to communicate with the airline.
There were more than 350 passengers on the plane. To scare us, they even killed a person named Rakesh Kumar and threw him out of the plane.
Then, they started collecting our passports. Somehow, Neerja hid some passports of American citizens under the seats. They kept on shouting and screaming at us in Arabic and continued firing shots in the air. After some time, in the afternoon, they offered us sandwiches. But who on earth can eat food in such a difficult situation?
In the evening, they allowed everyone to go to the toilet, one after the other, by crawling on the floor with our hands locked over our heads.
I still remember, exactly after 17 hours of them hijacking the flight, the fuel ran out. Due to this, the generator of the plane went off, leading to darkness. After the lights went off, the terrorists panicked and started firing aggressively at us. They also started throwing grenades.
My own group director and another girl from the group were shot dead.
I was seated near the emergency exit. I tried to open the emergency exit door, but couldn’t do it. After giving it a second try, it opened, but at the same time, a grenade hit me in the left eye. And in a moment, I was down on the ground.
After that, I was taken to the terminal by the army and was later shifted to the hospital. I was given treatment at a hospital in Karachi. After 48 hours, the Indian Airlines flight took all the Indians back home. I was then taken to Jaslok Hospital in Mumbai. But, my eye couldn’t be treated there. So, I was taken to Chicago in the US for treatment, but the doctors there too couldn’t save my left eye.
This incident has had a deep impact on me. It was a very bad day for humanity. That day, nobody saw religion, caste, or creed in each other. That day we saw each other as humans and wanted to help and save each other. It’s as simple as that in end.”
There are many delightful-turned-ferocious anecdotes on 336 passengers which would syringe you with Goosebumps, but undoubtedly you would feel proud of the valiance of our ’NeerjaBhanot’.
There is a routine saying within us that ‘things get boring and words lose their meaning if repeated many times”. But the tale of the bravery model=cum-flight attendant- cum-SOLDIER, Neerja Bhanot doesn’t incorporate the same. It gives us the power and gets strengthened more and more if spelled infinite of infinite times.
God Bless her soul. God bless us.