Neerja Bhanot was an Indian model and purser for the airline who gave her life saving passengers on Pan Am Flight 73 which was hijacked by terrorists during a stopover in Karachi, Pakistan, on 5 September 1986. 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 to Bombay , she continued her studies at Bombay Scottish School and then graduated from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai.
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 modelling career simultaneously during her work at Pan Am.
Bhanot was the Senior Flight Purser on Pan Am Flight 73 flying from Mumbai to the United States, which was hijacked by four armed men on 5 September 1986 at Karachi airport in Pakistan. The aircraft was carrying 380 passengers and 13 crew members. The terrorists wanted to fly to Cyprus with the goal of freeing Palestinian prisoners in Cyprus. Bhanot was able to alert the cockpit crew as soon as the hijackers boarded the plane, and as the plane was on the tarmac, the three-member cockpit crew of pilot, co-pilot and the flight engineer left the aircraft through an overhead hatch in the cockpit. As the senior-most cabin crew member, Bhanot took charge of the situation inside the plane.
The hijackers were part of the Abu Nidal Organization, a Palestinian terrorist organization backed by Libya; they were targeting Americans and American assets. In the early minutes of the hijacking, they identified an Indian-American citizen, dragged him to the exit, shot him dead and threw his body onto the tarmac.
The terrorists then instructed Bhanot to collect the passports of all the passengers so that they could identify the other Americans on board. She and the other attendants under her charge hid the passports of the remaining 43 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 passengers.
After 17 hours, the hijackers opened fire and set off explosives. Bhanot opened one of the airplane doors, and started helping the other passengers escape. If she wanted, she could have been the first one to jump out and free from the aircraft when she opened the door, but she decided not to and instead started helping the other passengers escape. According to a surviving passenger, “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.” Out of a total of 44 American passengers, two were killed during the hijacking. A child on board, then aged seven, is now a captain for a major airline and has stated that Bhanot has been his inspiration, and that he owes every day of his life to her. Posthumously, she became the youngest recipient of India’s highest peacetime gallantry, the Ashok Chakra Award, as well as several other accolades from the government of Pakistan and the United States.