Neerja Bhanot saved lives. It’s not a name that many people know, but it belongs to one of the bravest and most selfless women of the 20th century. Allow us to introduce you to the heroine who lost her life while protecting hundreds, as they escaped from a hijacked plane. This is the story of Neerja Bhanot, an unexpected savior.
Neerja Bhanot was born on September 7th,1963. She was raised in Bombay by a Punjabi Hindu family. Her parents were Harish and Rama Bhanot, and she had two brothers, Akhil and Aneesh. While studying at Bombay Scottish School and St. Xavier’s College, she was spotted by a talent scout and began a successful modeling career. Concurrently she decided to go to Miami to train as a Pan Am flight attendant, and returned a purser.
The tragic hijacking took place on September 5th, 1986. She was the Senior Flight Purser on Pan Am Flight 73 flying from Mumbai to the United States. The plane carried 380 passengers and 13 crew members. It started as a flight like any other, but quickly turned into a living nightmare when the plane landed for a scheduled stop at the Karachi airport in Pakistan. While on this scheduled stop, four armed men illegally boarded, and hijacked the plane.
The armed gunmen belonged to the Abu Nidal Organization, a terrorist group that targeted American citizens. When the hijacking began, the terrorists located one Indian American citizen, and unfortunately, shot him dead. They then demanded that Bhanot hand over all of the passports, so they could identify and kill the remaining American passengers on board. Bhanot, in a courageous act of defiance, grabbed the passports and dropped them down a garbage chute. This way the hijackers could no longer tell which of the passengers were American.
After 17 hours, Bhanot still refused to help the terrorists find the Americans on board. The hijackers became furious, and began to open fire at the passengers. Bhanot acted quickly, opening one of the airplane doors, and escorted almost all of the passengers to safety. She could’ve jumped out to save herself, but she was willing to give her life for the survival of others.
Only two lives were lost in the hijacking out of 44 American passengers. And Neerja’s bravery does not stop there. When the plane was first commandeered, Bhanot realized that if these terrorists could get the plane airborne, it would end in countless more causalities. At the first sign of trouble Neerja risked her life by alerting the cockpit. This allowed the pilots time to evacuate from the plane, and prevented the plane from getting off the ground.
“She was guiding the passengers to the emergency exit. That is when the terrorists were firing constantly fearing a commando attack. They saw Neerja relentlessly trying to help the passengers out and that is when they caught her by her ponytail and shot her point blank.”-An anonymous surviving passenger’s account of Bhanot’s death.
During the time of her death, Neerja Bhanot saved lives by using her body to shelter three children from the gunfire. She would’ve turned 23 two days later. And while of course the fact she lost her life will always be a tragedy, the Herculean feat she achieved in her final hours should always be remembered.
Neerja was recognized internationally as “the heroine of the hijacking,” and was immediately memorialized in the United States and Pakistan. She became the first woman, the first civilian, and the youngest recipient of the Ashoka Chakra Award, which is India’s most prestigious award for valor and bravery during peacetime.
The Indian Postal Service also created a stamp to celebrate Neerja in 2004, and the US Department of Justice awarded her with the Special Courage Award in 2006. While these honors are kind gestures, Neerja’s family wanted her courage and legacy to inspire as many people as possible. To ensure this, her family opened up the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust. This trust presents two awards every year. The first is given to a flight crewmember from around the world who acts beyond the call of duty. The second, the Neerja Bhanot Award, is presented to an Indian woman who stands strong in the face of social injustice.
“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 they received after her death and an equal contribution from Pan Am, they set up the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust.”-The Better India
Neerja was turned into an Indian film in 2016, due to her story remaining a powerful note of history for Indian women everywhere. The film was written by Saiwyn Quadras and directed by Ram Madhvani. It was filmed in Hindi, with Sonam Kapoor playing the title role. She received several awards, including Best Actress at Filmfare, for her performance in 2017.
Her story was also made into two books by her brother, Aneesh Bhanot. They were The Smile of Courage, a biography, and The Neerja I Knew, a coffee-table book collecting personal memories of her by friends and family. Aneesh described the project as “a tribute to my younger sister Neerja, who showed the world the true meaning of courage, commitment and compassion.”
What Neerja Bhanot did is nothing short of a miracle. In the face of certain danger, she was able to find the courage to act. Her heroism saved hundreds of people, and has gone on to inspire thousands of more. Neerja Bhanot is proof that at our best, we are resilient, courageous, and brave. The truth is, we never know when we could end up a hero. Everyone, regardless of race, gender or background, has potential to do something truly great. Neerja’s story reminds us to stand up when others need our help, and to remain bold and vigilant in even the most dangerous of situations. As a selfless, heroic victory like Neerja’s is far greater than any one of us.
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