Neerja Bhanot was a flight attendant who gave her life saving hundreds during a hijacking 33 years ago.
Pan Am flight 73 flew from Mumbai to the U.S. with a stop in Karachi, Pakistan on September 5, 1986. It was hijacked by four Palestinian Abu Nidal Organization terrorists who wanted to use the Boeing 747-121 to free prisoners in Syria and Israel.
There were 380 passengers and 13 crew on board the aircraft. All but 22 survived, and much of the credit goes to the flight’s purser, 22 year old Neerja Bhanot who died near the end of the standoff.
This was not supposed to be an easy plane to hijack. There were armed guards near the aircraft. Hijackers showed up dressed as though they were airport security, and they drove a vehicle disguised as airport security as well – through a security checkpoint and right up to one of the boarding stairs for the Pan Am 747.
- Neerja Bhanot reacted to being boarded by using the hijack code to alert cockpit crew. The flight engineer, co-pilot, and pilot all escaped from a hatch, leaving terrorists with no one to fly the plane.
- The hijackers demanded passengers’ passports. Flight attendants collected them. Neerja Bhanot, realizing that Americans would be most at risk, disposed of many American passports hidden under seats and down the trash.
- She removed a page out of the flight manual that described procedures for aircraft door 3R. She gave it to a passenger hidden inside a magazine. This showed how to open the exit door and deploy the slide.
Pan Am Boeing 747 Operated Flight 73, credit: aussieairliners.org via Wikimedia Commons
She “continued serving people refreshments throughout the entire ordeal.” After 17 hours, and with the aircraft out of power, hijackers became frustrated and resolved to kill all of the passengers. Their plan to use explosives failed in the darkness and they began shooting.
Passengers went for the exit. Neerja Bhanot stayed back to help passengers escape, and was shot “while shielding three children with her own body.” She didn’t survive.
With the hijackers out of ammunition, the Pakistani military stormed the aircraft and seized the hijackers who were tried and sentenced to death – but had their sentences commuted to life in prison. Four of the prisoners eventually ‘escaped’, one believed to have been killed in a drone strike in Pakistan in 2010. A fifth wound up in the custody of the United States (either turned over by Pakistan or escaped and captured, it’s never been clear). That hijacker, Zayd Hassan Abd al-Latif Safarini, is currently serving a 160 year sentence in federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.
The 2016 film Neerja was made about the incident and heroic flight attendant.