Neerja Bhanot! It is the name of the brave flight attendant who lost her life in trying to save the passengers of her Pan American World Airways flight which was hijacked during its stopover in Karachi, Pakistan.
This story of valor inspires one and all even after more than 3 decades of the event. The real-life tale of Neerja is heart-rendering and her biographical details full of interesting facts.
Neerja Bhanot’s birth and childhood
Neerja Bhanot was born on 7 September 1963 in Chandigarh, Punjab, Northern India. Her upbringing was in Bombay and she belonged to the Punjabi Brahmin family.
Her father Harish Bhanot worked as a journalist and her mother was Rama Bhanot. She was the only sister of two brothers; Akhil and Aneesh.
Her initial education was at the Sacred Heart Senior Secondary School, Chandigarh. She then changed her school to Bombay Scottish School. She graduated from St. Xavier’s College, VT.
Neerja Bhanot’s career
Neerja started her career as a model and did modeling assignments. She loved Rajesh Khanna and was her huge fan. A vacancy for flight attendants was announced by Pan Am.
They wanted an all Indian crew for its India to Frankfurt route. The beautiful Neerja was selected and went to Miami for the training of a flight attendant and returned as a purser. She continued with modeling along with her job.
The fateful flight
Neerja was the senior flight purser for the Bombay to the United States flight on 5 September 1986 which had a stop-over in Karachi, Pakistan. There were 365 passengers on board with 13 crew members. During this halt, 4 armed men hijacked the plane at the Karachi airport.
The terrorists wanted the pilot to fly the plane to Cyprus where their mission was to free the Palestinian prisoners. The first thing that Neerja Bhanot did was to alert the pilots of these terrorists. The three cockpit crew immediately left the cockpit through the overhead opening in the cockpit. The terrorists shot an American citizen and threw his body on the tarmac. They wanted the onboard Americans and demanded their passports but Neerja saw to it that the evil men never knew who were the 43 Americans on board the flight whom they wanted to target.
After 17 hours of frightening wait, the terrorists opened fire. Neerja assisted all the passengers to escape after opening one of the doors. The terrorists feared a commando attack and seeing Neerja help the other passengers escape, they killed her point blank. She was at that time trying to shield three American children. 42/44 Americans were saved thanks to Neerja’s bravery and efforts.
She was the youngest to receive the Ashok Chakra award for extraordinary valor. She got many awards from the USA government and also Tamga-e-Pakistan from Pakistan.
Neerja Bhanot’s married life
Neerja, besides her great parents, had a husband whom she had married in 1985 and joined him in Doha, Qatar. But due to dowry demands, she left him and came back to Bombay to her parents’ house.
She had no children from this relationship and was not in any other relationship besides this. She was not dating any boyfriend when she died.
Sonam Kapoor says
Bollywood actress Sonam Kapoor who played Neerja in the Bollywood film Neerja, said recently that Neerja continues to inspire her even today.
“Even today, the heroism and bravery of Neerja Bhanot continues to move me. It was an honour to play her and pay homage to her indelible memory. #2YearsOfNeerja,”