She was the last person to quit. She gave up her life so that others could live. That’s how India remembers Neerja Bhanot, the 22-year-old air hostess, who saved lives of around 360 passengers before being gunned down by terrorists just 25 hours before her 23rd birthday. On the sad occasion of her 32nd death anniversary, you must know a few things about this “girl with sinews of steel”.
Neerja Bhanot: The “No Nonsense” Girl Who Accepted Challenges
The Chandigarh girl was the daughter of Harish Bhanot, a Mumbai-based journalist. When her arranged marriage turned sour after the pressure for dowry, she left her husband in the Gulf and returned to her parents in Mumbai. She had told her father, “I will do you proud”. The appetite for rising above the rest was evident in Neerja. She applied for a flight attendant job with Pan Am and got selected. While she was sent to Miami for training as a flight attendant, she returned as purser.
During the last few years of her life, she got interested in modeling. It was nothing less than impressive to see a young woman straddling two demanding roles – an air hostess and a model. She had accepted the challenge to prove “what she was”.
What Happened on That Fatal Day – 5 September 1986
The Pan Am flight from Mumbai was waiting at the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi to leave for John F Kennedy International Airport in New York when four men from the Abu Nidal Organisation (Palestinian terrorist group) hijacked it. Men, equipped with Kalashnikovs and other explosives, ordered the aircrew to close the doors.
Neerja was quick to alert the pilot. The aircrew, including pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer, immobilized the flight and escaped from the scene. That swift move by the 22-year-old air hostess foiled the terrorists’ plan to fly the plane to Israel and crash it into a building. The plan reminds us of the 9/11 attacks in New York that happened a few years later?
With the aircrew deserting the plane, around 360 passengers and the cabin crew were left on their own to come out alive from the grip of four burly terrorists. Since Neerja was leading the crew, the terrorists asked her to collect the passports of all the passengers. The idea was to identify the Americans on board and kill them. Guessing the evil design, Neerja commanded the attendants to hid the passports of 41 Americans. That was the second wise step taken in such a palpitating situation.
After a 17-hour-long struggle with uncertainty and the fear of death, Neerja managed to open the emergency door and the evacuation chute to help the passengers escape. Despite standing close to the leader of the terrorists, she managed to jump to the emergency exit and open it. Like a true captain of a sailing ship, she wasn’t the first to jump out. While the passengers were evacuating the flight, terrorists planted a volley of bullets on Neerja. The bullets hit her in the abdomen, arm and near the neck. The lady accepted death with dignity.
World Recognises Neerja’s Bravery
You may have crossed Neerja Bhanot Chowk in Ghatkopar (East) if you have been to Mumbai, but that’s not the only tribute the country has paid to this brave lady. She was the youngest recipient of Ashoka Chakra Award – India’s highest gallantry award for bravery. Almost two decades after her death, the Indian Postal Service released a stamp as a tribute to her resilience. The Pakistani government posthumously awarded the Tamgha-e-Insaniyat award to Neerja for showing “incredible kindness”. The US government also recognised her altruism and gave the ‘Justice for Crimes Award’ posthumously.
However, the biggest recognition the young lady received was from her father during her cremation. He bade farewell to her daughter at the crematorium by saying, “Goodbye darling, please keep coming”.