Is a hero born that way, or do circumstances bring out something that was in there, all along? What are we ourselves capable of, should circumstances require? Perhaps we’re all capable of more than we realize, or less, but we may never know which. Not until we have been tested.
For Neerja Bhanot the test came on September 5, 1986.
Neerja was born in Chandigarh, India and raised in Bombay, now Mumbai. The only daughter of Punjabi Hindu parents Hareesh and Rama Bhanot, she was the ‘laado’ of this family of five: the youngest, and most pampered.
Gifted with exceptional good looks it was all but foreordained that she would enter a career in modeling. She was a natural in front of a camera. It was hard to turn on a TV in mid-1980s India without a glimpse of this smiling spokeswoman, equally at home pitching cold cream, savings banks or the latest in saree fashion.
An arranged marriage proved abusive in early 1985 and Neerja left two months later, to move back with Rama and Hareesh.
It was barely a blip on the screen of a stellar modeling career and soon, Neerja decided on another. Her friend Naomi was interviewing, to become a flight attendant. Neerja helped her with her make-up and spontaneously decided to interview, herself. So it is Neerja Bhanot became a flight attendant with Pan Am. And why not? She was young and the whole world, lay before her. There was no reason she couldn’t handle two careers.
Neerja traveled to Miami Florida for training with the airline and returned, a purser. At 22 she was not only air hostess but now responsible for cash receipts, taken in-flight.
On September 5, 1986, Neerja donned the crisp blue uniform for the last time and boarded Pan Am Flight 73. She was senior flight purser for this trip, a route flying from Mumbai to the United States via Karachi, Pakistan and Frankfurt, Germany.
A vile, alien ideology enters this story on the stopover, in Pakistan. Four armed men in a van disguised as airport security, members of the Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal Organization. The four crossed the tarmac passing the pushback tug and catering trucks to enter the aircraft in pairs, two via the front stairs and two up the back.
Firing their weapons in the air and into the floor at their feet the militants ordered all doors, closed and locked. Unseen in the moment Neerja signaled the code for ‘Hijack’ and flight attendant Sherene Pavan phoned the cockpit. Fellow air hostess Sunshine Vesuwala watched as one now grabbed hold of Neerja with a gun, to her head. 393 passengers and crew were now captives, of four armed terrorists.
Pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer were able to flee via an overhead hatch. Many would criticize these three for fleeing in the days to come but flight steward Dilip Bidichandani, takes the opposite view. At least three lives were now saved and the situation was safer on the ground, than in the air. The terrorists themselves later claimed an intent to fly the aircraft into a building, a tactic unheard of, in 1986.
Twelve flight attendants were now in charge of the hijacked aircraft, none older than their early to mid-twenties.
Karachi flight director Viraf Doroga took up a megaphone and attempted to negotiate as security personnel took positions, around the aircraft. The four wanted to fly to Cyprus and on to Israel where some of their cohorts, were held in prison. They demanded a pilot and, when none materialized, 29-year-old American passenger Rajesh Kumar was dragged from his seat, driven to his knees before an open door and shot in the head, his lifeless body kicked onto the tarmac, below.
In the face of such bestiality, ordinary people rose to new levels of common decency, and courage. Nupoor Abrol told BBC News, “My first instinct was to open the wing exit and slip out with as many passengers as I could, but I realized that this would leave the rest of the passengers vulnerable.”
The terrorists made it known they were after Americans. They instructed flight attendants to collect passports so they could identify, which were Americans. Sunshine, Madhvi Bahuguna and Neerja began to collected passports. In they came in shades of green and burgundy, of black and blue. The unique navy blue of the American passport, chosen in 1976 to match that of the stars and strips was missing, quietly omitted or tucked under seats or secreted, in flight attendant’s uniforms.
Infuriated at the inability to find an American the terrorists now chose a Brit, Mike Thexton, who was forced to sit on the floor with his hands crossed, over his head. Thexton received a vicious kick to the side for his efforts but he would survive the ordeal. Twenty-two of his fellow captives, would not.
The stalemate dragged on for seventeen grueling hours until the aircraft ran out of power and the savages, ran out of patience. As the hijackers became visibly more agitated Neerja and others communicated means of deploying emergency exit ramps, to passengers seated by the exits.
Pandemonium broke out on the aircraft as four terrorists, now opened fire. Neerja was directing passengers out one exit as one of them grabbed her by the ponytail. She wasn’t just shot in the crossfire she was murdered, point blank. According to one eyewitness her last act was an attempt to shelter, three children.
Her 23rd birthday came and went, two days later.
Twenty two passengers and crew were killed that day with another 120, wounded. The nation of India awarded Neerja Bhanot the Ashoka Chakra Award, India’s highest award for bravery in the face of an enemy, during peacetime. She is the youngest recipient of such an award and the first, female.
Five terrorists were subsequently caught and tried by Pakistani authorities. They were all released against the express wish of American authorities and deported, to Palestine. The terrorist leader, to hell with his name, was extradited to the United States where is serving a 160-year sentence.
One of the children Neerja Bhanot sheltered with her body was seven years old, that day. The boy was inspired by the selfless courage of the woman who had saved his life and grew to become a pilot, with a major airline.