MUMBAI–Neerja Bhanot died on the night of Sept. 5, 1986, after terrorists killed her for helping passengers escape Pan Am Flight 73 hijacked at Karachi airport, Pakistan. She still lives on through the ultimate courage – saving lives at cost of her own.
On Friday, Feb. 19, 2016, India sees ‘Neerja’ again. Twenty-First Century Fox and Star India are releasing their joint venture film Neerja, a Hindi biopic about this woman who died at 22 while helping 360 fellow beings live on.
Four heavily armed terrorists carrying assault rifles, grenades, plastic explosives and pistols passed Karachi airport security, and stormed Pan American Flight 73 from Bombay (now Mumbai) that had landed at Karachi early morning on Sept. 5, 1986.
Firing their weapons and manhandling a flight attendant, the hijackers took control of the Boeing 747-121 Jumbo Jet minutes before it took off to Frankfurt, en route to New York.
Senior flight attendant Neerja was among the 380 passengers and crew aboard. 360 of them lived to tell the world of her calm courage and supreme sacrifice. The terrorists could have done anything to her, but Neerja, daughter of a Mumbai journalist Harish Bhanot, showed no fear.
Even as she was dying, she was saving lives.
Among the survivors was a resident of Symmes town, Cincinnati, Ohio. He described how Neerja saved him even as she was covered with blood from her abdominal wound.
“I was going to jump out but she (Neerja) said it was a wing exit and it would be too long a fall for me,” Asian American Sekhar Mitra told the Cinncinati Enquirer four days later. “She directed me to the rear exit and I got out”.
On the tarmac, he saw Neerja being carried away.
Mitra returned home to Symmes town, to celebratory yellow ticker-tape and welcoming tears of joy. Neeraja returned home to Bombay in a wooden coffin, two days before her 23rd birthday.
“She was fantastic,” a grateful Mitra said, “the only real hero in the incident.”
After the four terrorists dressed as security guards hijacked the Pan Am Boeing 747-121, it became obvious, Mitra said, that Americans were their primary targets. “Their leader passed by our seat several times, pointing his guns at us, saying, ‘Are you American citizens? Do you have American passports?’”
Minutes after hijacking the jet, the terrorists asked one American citizen to kneel down, place his hands behind his head. They then shot him and flung his body onto the tarmac.
After the hijackers ordered Neerja to collect passports of all passengers, she hid the American passports.
“I still can’t believe she did that,” said Mitra. “If they had found that out, they would have killed her immediately, I’m sure.” Forty-two other US citizens were still alive on Flight 73.
“The flight attendant smiled throughout the incident despite the fear surrounding her,” Mitra told James McCarthy of the Cinncinati Enquirer on Sept. 9, 1986. Her calm courage irritated the hijackers, Mitra said, and they often pointed guns at her. But she smilingly went about serving sandwiches and coffee to passengers and whispering comforting words.
Seventeen hours into the hijacking, hell let itself loose when the stricken Pan Am aircraft was plunged in darkness. The on-board power supply had given out and the back-up battery died. The terrorists panicked, opened fire and tried setting off explosives in the deadly dimness, even as bullets ricocheted in the cabin. People screamed, bleeding, running in the carpeted fuselage of death.
Survivors said Neerja shielded three children with her body as the hijackers opened fire.
She had earlier secretly hidden instructions inside pages of a magazine to a passenger sitting next to an emergency exit. She helped him open the exit hatch when the hijackers began firing. She could have escaped to safety. But she stayed back, kneeling by the emergency hatch to help passengers out. “Get out”, she said. “Run.”
A hijacker saw Neerja freeing their hostages, furiously dragged her to her feet, placed a gun on her head and pulled the trigger.
“I saw her getting shot,” a Flight 73 survivor Dr Kishore Murthy told my media colleagues in Mumbai on Thursday. “She was shot in the head, point blank”.
Her last in-flight announcement
“Good morning, sir,” she said 18 hours ago, while welcoming passengers aboard Pan Am Boeing ‘Clipper Empress of the Seas’ at the Sahar International Airport, Bombay.
On Feb. 18, 2016, the Neerja film-makers released on YouTube the recording of Neerja’s last in-flight announcement. ‘The Voice of Neerja Bhanot’ hit over 841,000 YouTube views within hours.
Pan Am Flight 73 was hijacked around 5.30 am. Neerja immediately alerted the pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer through the intercom, using the pre-arranged code for hijacking.
Then, somewhat incredibly, the captain and his two-man flight crew fled the hijacked aircraft, escaping through an overhead hatch – and uncomfortably left unanswered their true intentions: was it shameful cowardice, as some said; or, as Pan Am claimed to general disbelief, their bunking part of company standard procedure to ground a hijacked plane, to prevent it from taking off?
But in effect, the passengers and an inexperienced young in-flight crew were abandoned to face ruthless terrorists. “The captain has left,” Neerja announced. “I am the captain”.
Hussain, a survivor from Pakistan, told the publication Star how “the undaunted Neerja continuously remained on her feet serving coffee, sandwiches and provided for every need of the entrapped passengers that was conceivable under the circumstances; at the same time, she would whisper comforting words in their ears”.
As the lights went out and the hijackers started firing, Hussain said his “savior Neerja had the presence and the nerve to steal through the pandemonium of the screaming injured and dying men, women and children to make a dash for the emergency door. Though fragile, Neeraja, by sheer zest, it seems, single-handedly opened the chute”.
She asked and pushed Hussein and other passengers to go. At the edge of the open door to freedom, she chose not to go through to save her own life.
“Among the lined wooden coffins containing the bodies of the Pan Am Flight victims, there was one in particular, that was the subject of admiration, about which the large crowd of Muslims and non-Muslims were praying,” said The Star edition of Sept. 5, 1991, the fifth anniversary of the hijacking. “This coffin destined for Bombay was tagged with the name and photograph of Neerja. Like many others in that hall, Hussain said he too wept in homage before the remains of that wonderful person. Hussain holds that Neerja was not the captain, and in risking her life, she went well beyond the call of duty.”
The hijacking ended only after the hijackers ran out of bullets.
‘Asoka Chakra’ honor
The Government of India posthumously awarded Neerja the “Asoka Chakra,” the country’s highest civilian award for bravery. She was the youngest ever to receive it.
“Her loyalties to the passengers of the aircraft in distress will forever be a lasting tribute to the finest qualities of the human spirit”, said the Asoka Chakra citation from the President of India.
She received three posthumous awards from the US government and one from Pakistan.
Three decades later, nothing is known about the real motive behind the hijacking or who planned it. According to Pakistan’s law, the penalty for hijacking is death.
In September 2001, the Pakistan government released Zaid Hassan Abd Latif Safarini, the leader of the hijackers. Waiting FBI agents re-arrested him and took him to the US. On May 13, 2004, Safarini told a Washington courtroom filled with 100 survivors and families of those he had killed on Flight 73: “I am so sorry at what happened, so very sorry…I take the responsibility for all the pain. My sorrow is from the depth of my heart. If you do not believe I am a person who has a heart, I accept that.”
“I wish I had died on that plane,” CNN correspondent Terry Frieden recorded him saying. “I am suffering … I sit in my cell. I have no hope. No feeling. I know I will die by myself, that I will never see my family again.”
“I don’t buy it,” US District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan told Safarini, after that unexpected mea culpa. “You are a coward and cold-blooded murderer.”
Judge Sullivan sentenced him to 160 years in prison, and said: “This is better than you deserve”.
Safarini could be reading this article while serving his sentence at the Terre Haute Federal Correctional Complex, Indiana. He will theoretically be released on May 13, year 2164 (*1).
CNN chronicled that unforgettable day in a Washington courtroom when Pan Am Flight 73 came alive again, its spirit hauntingly felt: “There was unanimity among veteran lawyers and court-watchers alike, that the unusual spectacle — the recitation of poetry, tales of suitcases still untouched, pictures of blood-splattered little girls’ dresses, tearful stories of survivors’ nightmares and families in shambles, a courtroom heavy with anger and despair — was, for most of them, a once-in-a-lifetime courtroom experience.
“David Brook, a leading national authority on the death penalty from South Carolina, surveyed the crowd of articulate, talented, and educated survivors — dancers, scientists, business executives and authors– who flew from five countries and 11 states to be present for the sentencing. ‘That all these amazing people came together in that aircraft, that one piece of metal at once, it is unbelievable,’ he said.”
‘That aircraft, that one piece of metal’, Clipper Empress of the Seas, flies no more. The Pan Am Boeing 747-121, where Neerja lived the last moments of her life, was broken up, its remnants probably scattered in the aircraft graveyard in the Mojave Desert of California, or buried in the aeronautical bone yard in Tucson, Ariz.
Five years after Clipper Empress of the Seas was hijacked as Pan Am Flight 73, a financially crippled Pan American World Airways, born in 1927, shut down operations on Dec. 4, 1991.
Neerja , this inspiring arrow of courage, pierced deeply to strike a timeless chord in some infinity of consciousness for a country, for the world and for a unique species that has potential to be most cruel, like the killers in Pan Am Flight 73 to New York, and to be infinitely compassionate like the smiling, selfless savior of Clipper Empress of the Seas.
Neerja, this special fellow being of Bombay, had lived her brief days in the best way possible: smilingly, willingly saving lives, serving others at the cost of her young life. No such life ends at death.
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(*1) Truly repentant murderers, even serial killers and terrorists, can change for the better – if they muster courage to face the poison within and the strong determination, relentless hard work to take the inner poison out. So it is being proved in Donaldson Maximum Security prison in Alabama (See Twenty In,Twenty Out, Asia Times, July 28, 2015) and for over two decades in Dhamma Tihar, in Tihar Jail, New Delhi.
Raja Murthy, based in Mumbai, writes for Asia Times since 2003, the Statesman since 1990, and was long-term contributor to Times of India, Economic Times, Elle etc. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.