Pan American flight attendant who saved travelers from Palestinian terror

Bhanot's defining moment came on September 5, 1986, which consequently led to the end of her life, but not without recognition.

February 11, 2019 17:52
3 minute read.
Pan American Flight 73

On September 5, 1986, Pan Am Flight 73 was hijacked on the ground at Karachi Airport in Pakistan by Palestinian terrorists led by the Abu Nidal Organization. (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)


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Neerja Bhanot's story is one of tragedy but also of exemplary bravery at the highest level.

Imagine yourself a flight attendant. You just landed at your destination, then all of the sudden you, your plane and all of those you are deemed responsible for are overrun by four armed terrorists. What do you do?

On September 5, 1986, Pan Am Flight 73 was hijacked on the ground at Karachi Airport in Pakistan by Palestinian terrorists led by the Abu Nidal Organization, a terrorist organization backed by Libya, in the hopes using the leverage to pick up and release a number of Palestinian prisoners held in both Cyprus and Israel.

As the plane reached the tarmac, the four hijackers, dressed in the clad of the Pakistan Airport Security Force, made their way to the boarding stairways of the flight and on board the plane armed with assault rifles, pistols, grenades, and plastic explosive belts.

The flight as scheduled was to depart from India to later arrive in New York with scheduled stops in Pakistan and Germany. The plane was waiting for the new passengers scheduled to join the flight in Karachi as the plane was subsequently overrun by the hijackers.

Bhanot's defining moment came on September 5, 1986, which consequently led to the end of her life, but not without recognition.

As the hijacking commenced, Bhanot had the presence of mind to alert the pilots in the cockpit that the cabin was under distress - allowing the three-member crew to escape leaving the plane immobilized and unusable for the terrorists onboard.

Bhanot, now being the most senior cabin-crew member is now in full command of the remaining crew and the more than 350 passengers still onboard the flight.

What can only be imagined as a harrowing responsibility for Bhanot, became more than real in the early moments of the hijacking, where at that time the Libyan-backed Palestinian terrorists found an Indian-American citizen, brought him to the back of the plane, shot him dead and then threw his body onto the runway behind the aircraft.

After personally witnessing this assassination herself, she was then instructed by the same people to collect all of the passports of the passengers on board so the hijackers could identify the other American passengers aboard the aircraft to use as leverage in their negotiations.

Under her command, she and her fellow flight crew carefully and meticulously collected and then hid the passports of the remaining 43 American passengers still on board Pan Am Flight 73 - a life-saving effort in the face of serious consequence and adversity.

After nearly a day of negotiations, terror and waiting the hijackers began to open fire on the passengers and set-off explosives on board the flight, Bhanot started to assist passengers to safety through one of the airplane's doors.

Bhanot could have been the first one off the flight, but instead of jumping off the plane and fleeing herself she chose to put the lives of the passengers above her own and courageously saved numerous people from certain death.

"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," a surviving passenger said.

Apparently, while shielding three American children from terrorist gunfire - a true hero.

Out of the total 44 American passengers, only two were killed during the hijacking.

Bhanot was posthumously recognized internationally for her life-saving efforts aboard Pan Am Flight 73.

She was the youngest ever recipient of the Ashok Chakra Award, India's most prestigious military honor awarded for "valor, courageous action or self-sacrifice" during peacetime. Bhanot's gallantry also earned the Tamgha-e-Pakistan from Pakistan, their version of the Ashok Chakra award as well as awards for her courage from the United States.

As the "heroine of the hijack," Bhanot successfully the thwarted the attempts of the Palestinian terrorists to take control of the aircraft and succeed in their motives to use terror to free Palestinian prisoners, without regard for human life, which Bhanot seemed to hold dear in her own heart as her actions speak volumes of her character, gallantry and respect for her fellow human-beings

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