Prior to her Pan Am days, Neerja was a popular model and well-known face in Mumbai, having starred in ad campaigns for brands like Binaca toothpaste, Forhans and Godrej.
“Neerja would talk about the training that Pan Am used to give, including what to do in case of a hijack. Once, my mother told her: Agar aisa kuch hua, you just run away (If you ever find yourself in such a situation, escape). Neerja replied: Mummy, tumhari jaisi maa hongi to is desh ka kya hoga? Mar jaoongi lekin bhagoongi nahin. (What will happen to the country if all mothers start thinking like you? I’d rather die than run.)”
Aneesh Bhanot recalls a conversation his sister, Pan Am flight attendant Neerja Bhanot, had with their mother. These were the words she would go on to live and die by.
“Our first reaction to the news was of shock, despair and some anger. In those days, we only had Doordarshan, so information was difficult to get,” Aneesh says. “My mother, however, was sure she would not come back.”
In honour of her sacrifice, Neerja’s family used the funds from Pan Am to set up the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust. The trust gives out two awards: one in recognition of an Indian woman who overcame social injustice, and the other to an airline crew member who went beyond the call of duty in a crisis. Details here.
As senior flight purser, Neerja saved many lives during the infamous hijack of Pan Am Flight 73 in 1986. The 22-year-old girl from Chandigarh died just two days before her 23rd birthday. She was posthumously awarded the Ashok Chakra, India’s highest civilian award for bravery.
Pan Am Flight 73
She was less than a year into her new job when it happened. On 5 September 1986, armed terrorists stormed Flight 73 at Karachi, Pakistan, with 360 passengers on board.
Shouting out the hijack code, Neerja alerted the cockpit about the situation, allowing the pilots to escape, thereby grounding the aircraft. The attackers, who had already started killing passengers, tried to identify American citizens—their key targets—through their passports. As the senior-most member on board, Neerja took charge of the situation.
She and her crew hid the passports under the seats and in the trash chute, saving many lives.
Neerja stayed calm through the 17 agonising hours, serving passengers sandwiches and beverages, while keeping their spirits up. When the terrorists eventually cracked and opened fire, the braveheart dashed to the emergency exit and opened the slide, allowing passengers to escape to safety. She was ultimately killed while shielding three American children from bullets.