March 21, 2016
Airline Employee Cited For Bravery During Hijacking
Bhanot was the senior flight purser on Pan Am Flight 73 flying from Mumbai to the United States when it was hijacked by armed men on September 5, 1986 at the Karachi airport in Pakistan. There were 361 passengers and 19 crew members. Because of her quick thinking, Bhanot alerted the cockpit crew who escaped from an overhead hatch in the cockpit so that the aircraft could not be forcibly flown. The three-member American pilot, co-pilot, and flight engineer were following protocol procedures.
The Palestinian hijackers were part of the terrorist Abu Nidal Organization that was backed by Libya. Conflicting reports indicate that the terrorists "were planning to use the hijacked plane to pick up Palestinian prisoners in both Cyprus and Israel. However, in 2006, surviving hostage Michael Thexton published a book in which he claimed he had heard the hijackers intended to crash the plane into a target in Israel (in the manner of 9/11).
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Born in Chandigarh, India, Bhanot received her schooling at Sacred Heart Sen. Sec. School, Chandigarh. She attended St. Xavier's College in Mumbai and it was here that she began a career in modeling. She decided to apply for a flight attendant job with Pan Am and once selected, she went to Miami for training. As a flight purser, Bhanot oversaw the flight attendants, and ensured the comfort and safety of the passengers. If there is a disturbance, the purser acts as the intermediary between the cockpit and remaining cabin crew members. The purser is ultimately second in command to the pilots and is usually the only one allowed to make on board announcements. Thus, since the pilots were no longer aboard the plane, Bhanot as the most senior cabin crew member remaining aboard, took charge. After a tense 17 hours, the hijackers opened fire and set off explosives
During the ensuing panic, "...the terrorists shot and killed an American citizen, heaved his body out of the plane's door onto the tarmac, and threatened to kill another passenger every ten minutes if their demands were not met. As the aircraft's power failed and the lights went out, the hijackers recited a martyrdom prayer, opened fire on the passengers with automatic weapons at point blank range, and threw hand grenades into the tightly packed group. In addition to the 20 passengers and crew who were killed, many more were severely maimed, blinded, or disfigured by bullets, grenades, and shrapnel."
In the subsequent chaos, Bhanot opened one of the doors, flung open an emergency chute and assisted passengers from the plane. In addition, she had secretly hidden instructions inside pages of a magazine for a passenger who was next to an emergency exit so he could open the exit. Though she could have escaped first, she let the passengers escape and was shielding three children from a hail of bullets when she was shot and killed.
One of the children, whose life she saved, is a now a captain for a major airline and has stated that Bhanot has been his inspiration and he owes every day of his life to her.
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After her death, her parents established the Neerja Bhanot award which "is an award of recognition conferred up to once a year by the the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust in India to a woman of that country subjected to social injustice, who faces the situation with grit and determination and extends help to other women in similar distress."
The names of the unsung heroes need to be etched into our subconscious while the names of the evil ones need to be blotted out. But more importantly, we must vow not to accede to the demands of the malevolent or else we diminish the memory of the brave.
March 9, 2016
Remembering the Brave
By Eileen F. Toplansky