Neerja Bhanot was a purser for Pan American World Airway, based in Mumbai, India, who was shot and killed while saving passengers from terrorists on board the hijacked Pan Am Flight 73 on 5 September 1986. Posthumously, she became the youngest recipient of India’s highest peacetime military award for bravery, the Ashok chakra.
Early Life And Education:
Neerja Bhanot was born in Chandigarh, India, the daughter of Rama Bhanot and Harish Bhanot, a Mumbai-based journalist. She received her early schooling at Sacred Heart Sen. Sec. School, Chandigarh. After moving to Mumbai, she completed her schooling in Bombay Scottish School and continued to St. Xaviers college,Mumbai. It was in Mumbai, where she was first spotted for a modelling assignment which began her modelling career.
Bhanot applied for a flight attendant job with Pan Am, when it decided to have an all Indian crew for its Asian clients, and upon selection, went to Miami for training as a flight attendant but returned as Purser.
Bhanot was the senior flight purser on Pan Am Flight 73 flying from Mumbai to USA, which was hijacked by four armed men on 5 September 1986 at Karachi airport in Pakistan. The aircraft was carrying 361 passengers and 19 crew members. The terrorists wanted to fly to Cyprus and wanted to release some of their members from jail. After the terrorists boarded the plane, Bhanot alerted the cockpit crew. As the plane was on the tarmac, the three-member American cockpit crew of pilot, co-pilot and the flight engineer evacuated the aircraft through an overhead hatch in the cockpit per their training so that the aircraft could not be forcibly flown. Bhanot, being the most senior cabin crew member remaining aboard, took charge.
The hijackers, Palestinians, were part of the terrorist Abu Nidal Organisation and were backed by Libya. The terrorists then instructed Bhanot to collect the passports of all the passengers so that they could identify the Americans. The terrorists wanted to put pressure on America by identifying and threatening the Americans on the aircraft. Bhanot and the other attendants under her charge hid the passports of the 41 Americans on board; some under a seat and the rest down a rubbish chute so that the hijackers could not differentiate between American and Non-American citizens.
After 17 hours, the hijackers opened fire and set off explosives. Bhanot opened one of the doors, flung open an emergency chute, and assisted passengers from the aircraft. She could have been the first to jump out when she opened the door but she decided not to and was shot while shielding three children from a hail of bullets. From a total of 41 American passengers, only 2 were killed during firing. One of the children, then aged 7, is now a captain for a major airline and has stated that Bhanot has been his inspiration and he owes every day of his life to her. Bhanot was recognized internationally as “the heroine of the hijack” and is the youngest recipient of the Ashok Chakra Award, India’s most prestigious gallantry award for bravery during peace time.
This incident happened just two days before her twenty-third birthday. She had actually invited her family to meet for her 23rd birthday. Not only had she ensured the failure of the hijacking by preventing the plane from getting off the ground, but also saved the lives of hostages in those long hours of incarceration. Bhanot also posthumously received multiple awards for her courage from the United States government.
The hijackers were said to be from the Abu Nidal Organisation. In 2001, Zayd Hassan Abd Al-Latif Masud Al Safarini, one of the hijackers who shot the passengers, was captured by the FBI in Bangkok. He is currently serving a 160-year prison term in Colorado. Four others escaped from Adyala jail in January 2008 when it was attacked by terrorists. The FBI announced a $5 million bounty on their heads. In January 2010, Pakistani intelligence officials announced that a drone attack in the North Waziristan tribal region had killed one of the released hijackers, Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim. His death was never confirmed and he remains on the FBI Most Wanted Terrorists .
For her bravery, the Governmentof India posthumously awarded Bhanot the Ashok Chakra Award (India’s highest gallantry award for bravery in the face of the enemy during peace time), and Bhanot became its youngest recipient. In 2004 the Indian Postal Service released a stamp commemorating her.
With insurance money and an equal contribution from Pan Am for using the brand Pan Am in the title, her parents set up the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust. The trust presents two awards every year, one for a flight crew member, worldwide, who acts beyond the call of duty and another, the Neerja Bhanot Award, to an Indian woman who when faced with social injustice such as dowry or desertion difficulties and then helps other women in similar social distress. The award includes a sum of INR 1,50,000, a trophy and a citation.
Bhanot’s brother Aneesh went to Wastington in 2005 to receive the ‘Justice for Crimes Award’ awarded posthumously to her as part of the ‘Annual Crime Rights Week’ at a ceremony held at the United States Attorney’s office for the District of columbia. In 2006, she and the other Pan Am Flight 73 flight attendants and Pan Am’s flight director for Pakistan were awarded the Special Courage award by the United States Department of Justice.
The civil aviation ministry of India conferred an honor on Bhanot posthumously on 18 February 2010 in New Delhi on the occasion of the launch of the celebrations of the centenary of Indian aviation.
Personal Life and Family:
Bhanot had an arranged Marraige in March 1985 and joined her husband in the Gulf. However, the marriage turned sour following alleged dowry pressure and she returned to her parents’ home in Mumbai within two months.
Bhanot 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 31 December 2007 in Chandigarh at the age of 86.Her mother Rama Bhanot died on 5 December 2015.
- Ashoka Chakra, India
- Flight Safety Foundation Heroism Award,US
- Justice for Crimes Award,United States of Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia
- Special Courage award,United States Department of Justice.
- Ministry of civil Aviation Award,India
- Tamgha-e-Insaaniyat (Awarded for showing incredible human kindness), Pakistan