Neerja Bhanot was a senior flight attendant for the airline Pan American World Airways, situated in Mumbai, India. She was from Chandigarh, Punjab in India. She was born on September 7, 1963. She was assigned as a flight purser to the Pan Am Flight 73, which was hijacked by heavily armed terrorists, on 5th September 1986. She was helping the passengers on board in escaping, when she was shot. The Government of India posthumously awarded her with the Ashoka Chakra Award. She became the youngest recipient of India’s highest gallantry award for bravery during peace time.
This was just one day before her 23rd birthday. In 2004, to memorialize her, the Indian Postal Service released a stamp. As a part of ‘Annual Crime Rights Week,’ she was awarded ‘Justice for Crimes Award’ in 2005. Her brother received the award on her behalf, going to Washington DC, at a ceremony held at the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. She along with other Pan Am Flight 73 flight attendants was awarded the Special Courage Award by United States Department of Justice. Contributions from Pan Am and the insurance money after her death helped her family to set up the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust.
The trust felicitates deserving candidates with two awards every year, one for a flight crew member who works beyond the call of duty and another, the Neerja Bhanot Award, to an Indian woman who acted courageously and helped other women from the situation of social distress. Bhanot House of Austrey School was named to honor her. The Civil Aviation Ministry of India granted an honor on Bhanot on 18 February 2010, in
New Delhi on the event of the launch of the centenary year celebration of Indian Aviation.
On July 2, 2016, at a ceremony held at the House of Commons, UK Parliament in London, England, she was conferred with the Bharat Gaurav Award. Neerja was born to Rama Bhanot and Harish Bhanot. Her father was a Mumbai-based journalist. She was third child of the couple after two sons - Akhil and Aneesh. She was the apple of her parents’ eyes; they used to call her Laado. Neerja went to Sacred Heart Senior Secondary school in Chandigarh. She then completed her high school studies from Bombay Scottish School and pursued her graduation from St. Xavier’s College.
She was an ebullient young girl, sensitive, caring and optimistic. She got married shortly after her graduation in 1985 and moved to Gulf to live with her husband, but her marriage didn’t work for so long. She was used to be tortured by her husband for dowry. She parted from him and concentrated on shaping a prosperous career for herself. Winsome and assured, she took over some modeling assignments and featured in various television commercials and print advertisements for companies such as Binaca Toothpaste, Godrej best detergent, Vaporex, Benzer sarees and Vicco Turmeric Cream.
She applied for a job as a flight attendant with Pan America, the main and largest International air carrier in the US at that time. Around 10,000 applicants were there, but Neerja was easily selected among top 80. After being selected, she was sent for training to Miami. Neerja being courageous and full of passion and enthusiasm impressed her training instructors. She at a very tender age of 22 achieved a big career being appointed as a senior flight purser with the Pan Am Airways.
On September 5, 1986, Neerja Bhanot was on her shift in the Pan Am Flight 73. The flight was from Mumbai to the USA. It was waiting on the tarmac at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, when all of a sudden, four men having arms galumphed into the aircraft. Acting smartly and showing quick action, Neerja alerted the cockpit crew, who evacuated the plane. Neerja then took the command, as she was the senior most staff left on the hijacked aircraft. The hijackers - part of the terrorist Abu Nidal Organisation that was backed by Libya planned to fly to Israel and crash the plane into a building, but as cockpit crew had already escaped, they couldn’t succeed in their motive.
The passengers on the plane were from various countries including India, Pakistan, Germany, and America. Among all the passengers, Americans were the main target. When Neerja was told to collect the passengers’ passports, she hid those belonging to Americans, so that their identities couldn’t be revealed. The torment on the aircraft continued for a long duration. After 17 hours, the hijackers opened fire and set off explosives, inciting Neerja to open the emergency door.
She could have escaped easily, but she chose to help the passengers first. She stood courageously for hours and saved lives of several passengers. She was helping three children in escaping when hijackers saw them and started firing, she shielded the three children and was hit by a bullet. Neerja was so full of life and was so courageous.