Twenty-two year old Neerja Bhanot was the senior flight attendant on Pan Am Flight 73 bound for New York City when it was hijacked in the early morning hours of September 5, 1986, during a layover in Karachi, Pakistan. As four heavily armed terrorists, members of the Abu Nidal Organization (an offshoot of Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction of the PLO) boarded the plane, Bhanot notified the cockpit. And since the plane was still on the tarmac, the pilot, co-pilot, and flight engineer were able to escape through a ceiling hatch.
Suddenly the senior member of the 13 person flight crew, the terrorists demanded Bhanot gather the passports of the 360 passengers so they could identify the Americans on board and execute them. Bhanot instructed the attendants to hide the 41 American passports, under seats and in a trash chute.
After a seventeen hour stand-off, the terrorists opened fire inside the plane and began setting off explosives. Bhanot opened the emergency exit, and as the first closest to the exit could have easily escaped. But she chose to stay, and began helping people get out. Pakistani commandos stormed the plane and took control. In the chaos, Bhanot, shielding three children with her body, was shot multiple times by the terrorists and died.
Because of her quick thinking, and extraordinary bravery, Bhanot was able to keep the plane from taking off, helped to stall the hijackers, and limited the massacre to 22 dead. It had been believed that the hijackers intended to use the plane to pick up Palestinian prisoners in Cyprus and Israel. However, in 2006 one of the hostages wrote that he’d heard the hijackers discussing the plan of crashing the plane into a target in Israel.
All four hijackers were eventually arrested and sentenced to life in prison. By 2008, though, all four hijackers had been released.
Bhanot was posthumously honored with India’s highest peacetime medal of bravery, the Ashok Chakra Award. She was the first woman, and the youngest person, to receive this distinction. Her parents and Pan Am Airlines honored her memory by establishing the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust, which awards prize money each year to one flight crew member worldwide and one Indian woman who act with remarkable courage for social justice.
Almost exactly fifteen years before 9/11, Neerja Bhanot showed once again that there is nothing more powerful than the willingness to die in order to save lives. It’s the opposite of terrorism, and the stuff of greatness.
Neerja Bhanot is a hero you should know. And I‘m Dr. Ross Porter.