My personality and line of work both lend to spending a lot of time focusing on the ugly that surrounds us in the world. Unfortunately there is no shortage of it. It is for this very reason that I occasionally seek to find interesting stories that highlight the good that is also out there and equally enjoy occasionally sharing those stories with our readers.
In this article I’m going to introduce you to Neerja Bhanot a truly selfless hero. Depending on your age you may very well be familiar with the tragic event that surrounds her story, but it’s likely that very few of you remember her name.
It was about 6:00 am on September 5, 1986 in Karachi Pakistan. Four armed Palestenian men of the Abu Nidal Organization hijacked the now well known Pan Am Flight 73. The aircraft had 360 passengers on board and had just arrived from Mumbai India. The plane was still on the tarmac preparing to depart to Germany and then ultimately wrapping up at JFK in NYC, NY. a trip it would not make. Unfortunately before it departed the fanatics stormed the plane and began to initiate their short lived reign of terror. There are a few accounts of what the intent of the hijackers were, but I personally side with Michael Thexton a surviving hostage who claimed he had heard the hijackers intended to crash the plane into a target in Israel.
There is a lot of information out there on the Hijacking and I don’t want to dwell on it, but I will share a little of it to help set the stage and bring our heroine’s actions to light. Ultimately the terrorist were able to storm the plane and violently seize control, however during that process Neerja was able to alert the cockpit crew using intercom, allowing the pilot, co-pilot, and flight engineer to flee through an overhead hatch in the cockpit. That escape very likely saved the majority of passengers live aboard Flight 73.
Without a crew it quickly became clear that the terrorist would be forced to negotiate rather execute their criminal travel plans. This infuriated hijacker Zayd Safrini. At around 10:00 a.m., Safarini then went through the plane selected Rajesh Kumar, a 29-year-old Indian American resident of California who had just recently been naturalized as an American citizen. Safarini ordered Kumar to come to the front of the aircraft, to kneel at the front doorway where he ultimately executed and pushed Rajesh out onto the Tarmac.
Shortly after the execution Safarini informed the flight attendants to collect passengers passports and bring them to him. It is here that we see another brave action of the young 22 year old Neerja despite the danger involved. As the Senior Flight Purser she believed that passengers with American Passports were being targeted by the hijackers, as a result she along with the other attendants under her charge proceeded to hide the passports of the 41 American on board. Some under a seat and the remainder down a garbage chute. Very possibly once again saving the lives of more passengers.
During the following hours as the negotiating drudged on one flight attendant secretly removed a page from her manual that explained the emergency door procedures and smuggled it to a passenger to study for later use. Although I could not find information specifically attributing that to Neerja I wonder if she was not somehow also involved in that sly act as well.
As the negotiations began to stalemate and day turned into night the terrorist began to unravel. It is during this most violent of time that we truly see the selfless nature of Neerja Banhof shine. As the auxiliary power shut down and the plane went to emergency lighting it appears the the hijackers decided to initiate a suicidal plan to kill everyone on board. Two hijackers stood at exit doors across from each other when one aimed to shoot at the explosive belt of the other. Fortunately he was a poor shot and there was only a small detonation. It was at this time that the hijackers immediately began to shoot their weapons into the cabin at passengers and attempted to begin throwing grenades. It was during this melee that the flight attendants and passengers began to open the emergency exits and attempted to deploy the slides. Multiple eye witness accounts state that Neerja with an abdominal wound was able to open the only door to have a successful slide jettison and then rather than hopping down the slide as most would she instead ushered others down it to safety. Ultimately giving her life while shielding three children from gunfire.
Neerja truly embodied a Warrior Spirit!