Hailed as "the heroine of the hijack" the story of Neerja Bhanot is a source of inspiration to not only women but to all. A flight attendant for Pan Am she displayed exceptional bravery and intelligence while saving passengers from terrorists on board of hijacked Pan Am Flight 73 on 5 September 1986. She succumbed to bullet injuries while shielding three children. A vivacious and warm person, Neerja was awarded India’s highest peacetime honor, the Ashok Chakra Award, becoming the youngest recipient in the nation’s history.
Born and brought up in Chandigarh, Neerja Bhanot was daughter of Rama Bhanot and Harish Bhanot, a Mumbai-based journalist. She had two brothers namely Akhil and Aneesh. After an unsuccessful marriage life owing to dowry related complications, she returned back to her parents in Mumbai. A talented lady she made a fresh start and applied for a flight attendant job with Pan Am. Once selected she was send to Miami for training as a flight attendant but returned as purser.
Terrorist Attack and Death
September 5, 1986, was just like any other day as Neerja was busy in reviewing safety and emergency checklists. But while doing so she saw 4 heavily-armed terrorists boarding Pan Am flight 73. To avert any major casualty she alerted the pilots by shouting a secret “hijack code” who quickly evacuated the plane leaving crew members and passengers at the mercy of the 4 enraged terrorists.
Alarmed by her act terrorists belonging to Libya-backed Abu Nidal Organization – asked for the details of American passengers. But she smartly alongwith other crew members hid the passports of the 41 Americans on board – some under a seat and the rest down a rubbish chute. With no response from other side and after long wait of 17 hours, the hijackers opened fire and set off explosives. Showing exemplary courage Neerja quickly opened the emergency door and helped a number of passengers to escape. She was shot while shielding three children from a hail of bullets. Her death came as a big shock to the nation and the passengers of airlines for whom she struggled till her last breath.
Honours and Awards
Justice for Crime Award
Neerja Bhanot was killed by terrorist bullets, while saving the life’s of fellow passengers. Her bravery was honoured with the Ashoka Chakra which mentioned her selfless act in clear terms.
"Her loyalties to the passengers of the aircraft in distress will forever be a lasting tribute to the finest qualities of the human spirit". - Ashok Chakra citation
In 2004 a stamp commemorating her deed was released by Indian Post. Her parents set up the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust with the insurance money and from the contribution from Pan Am. The trust every year presents two awards. While one is awarded to a flight crew member, worldwide, who acts beyond the call of duty the other is given to an Indian woman who, when faced with social injustice such as dowry or desertion perseveres and then helps other women in similar social distress. The award includes a sum of INR 1,50,000, a trophy and a citation. In 2005 her brother Aneesh went to Washington DC to receive the 'Justice for Crimes Award' awarded posthumously to Neerja.
To honour her bravery Amitabh Bachchan during 1990s inaugurated a square named as Neerja Bhanot Chowk near Ghatkopar (East) , Mumbai. Many other awards were bestowed upon this brave daughter of India who played an instrumental role in saving many precious lives.
(FAN OF Ms. NEERJA BHANOT)
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