A story of bravery and sacrifice, the film Neerja is based on a real life event that took place on the ill-fated Pan Am Flight 73 that led to Neerja Bhanot’s death. The film, directed by Ram Madhvani, stars Sonam Kapoor in the title role. This film is scheduled to release on February 19th, 2016.

This is the true story of Neerja Bhanot, an Indian who braved death and went beyond the call of duty.

Neerja was born to to parents Rama Bhanot and Harish Bhanot, a Mumbai-based journalist in Chandigarh, on 7th September, 1963. She did her schooling from the Sacred Heart Senior Secondary School in Chandigarh and went to college at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai. At the young age of 22, she had an ad-based arranged marriage and joined her husband in the Gulf. However, she returned to her parents’ home after two months because of the dowry pressure she was facing.

After Neerja returned to Mumbai, she applied for a flight attendant job with Pan Am. Upon selection, she went to Miami for training as a flight attendant but returned as a purser, or chief flight attendant in charge of overall safety and comfort.

neerja bhanot story
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Besides her job as a purser for Pan Am, Neerja also took up various modelling assignments. Before the ill-fated incident, she was occupied with her shoots. She returned from Frankfurt on September 2nd in the morning and continued working late evenings. On Thursday she reported for shooting at 9 AM and returned home at 8 PM. Despite the hard day, she had a bounce in her step because of her assignment with Director Ayesha Sayani.

Neerja got a pick-up call from Pan Am on September 5th, 1986 and was informed that the pick-up time will be 1:15 AM. Her mother told her to ask Pan Am if she could be excused because she was exhausted and had less than 25 hours left for her 23rd birthday. But Neerja brushed it away and continued to get ready for duty.

The morning of September 5th, 1986 was just like any other day for senior flight purser Neerja Bhanot. The US-bound Pan Am Flight 73 arrived from Mumbai and had a routine stop-over at the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi. It was parked on the tarmac and was preparing to depart for New York City, USA. But before the flight could depart, four heavily armed terrorists who were dressed as airport security guards entered the aircraft while firing shots from an automatic weapon, eventually seizing control of the plane.

neerja bhanot story
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The minute Neerja’s worst fears were confirmed, she proceeded to alert the cockpit crew after the terrorists boarded the plane. But as per their training, the three-member American cockpit crew of pilot, co-pilot and the flight engineer evacuated the aircraft through an overhead hatch in the cockpit to prevent it from being forcibly flown. Neerja, being the senior-most crew member on board, had no choice but to take charge and inform the hijackers that she was in command now.

A member of the flight crew was ordered by one of the terrorists called Mustafa, who was also the leader of the hijacking group, to collect and hand over the passports of all the passengers on board. But Neerja realized the primary targets of the hijackers were the 41 American passengers and discreetly hid their passports under the seats. She even discarded some of the passports down the rubbish chute to prevent the hijackers from acquiring them again. She and the 380 passengers on board were left in the merciless hands of these cold-hearted hijackers. However, Neerja maintained her cool, comforting the passengers on board, especially the elderly and the children. She continued to smile and look after the passengers, despite the circumstances and the growing tension on board.

The hijackers were part of the terrorist Abu Nidal Organization and were backed by Libya. They held the crew and the passengers hostage for 17 hours on the runway. By 9 PM, the auxiliary power unit failed entirely and the aircraft was submerged into darkness. The hijackers then opened fire and set off explosives in fear of being raided by the commandos. Their AK47s blindly vomited bullets inside the aircraft, beginning one of the most historic bloodbaths. With the aircraft in darkness, Neerja quickly opened one emergency exit while a Pan Am mechanic opened the other. She stayed on the plane to help people escape, pushing them down the chute to safety. But the hail of bullets struck her while she was shielding three children from the open fire and succumbed to those injuries.

After the hijackers ran out of bullets and silence commenced, they tried to escape but failed. The hijackers were captured by commandos and sentenced to life by a UA court. Of the 380 passengers and crew members on Pan Am Flight 73, 20 were killed.

neerja bhanot story
Image Source: JPB Transport

For her gallantry and sacrifice, the Government of India posthumously awarded her the Ashoka Chakra Award (India’s highest gallantry award for bravery in the face of the enemy during peace time), with Neerja becoming its youngest recipient. In the year 2004, the Indian Postal Service released a stamp commemorating her bravery.

In 2005, Neerja’s brother Aneesh went to Washington DC to receive the ‘Justice for Crimes Award’ for her. This was a part of the ‘Annual Crime Rights Week’ at a ceremony held at the United States Attorney’s office for the District of Columbia. In 2006, she and the other Pan Am Flight 73 attendants were awarded the Special Courage award by the US Department of Justice.

The hijackers responsible for Neerja’s death and the death of the 20 passengers on board were captured by Pakistan, tried and convicted. They were sentenced to death in 1988 but their sentence was later commuted to life in prison.

Zayd Hassan Abd Al-Latif Masud Al Safarini, one of the hijackers who shot the passengers, was captured by the FBI in Bangkok in 2001 after being released by Pakistan. He is currently serving a 160-year prison term in Colorado. The four other hijackers were freed from Pakistan’s Adyala Jail in January 2008. However, the FBI announced a $5 million bounty on their heads. In January 2008, Pakistani intelligence officials announced the death of Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim, one of the released hujackers. They stated that a drone attack in the North Waziristan tribal region had killed him. But his death was never confirmed and he remains on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list.

The ‘Heroine of the Hijack’, Neerja Bhanot, committed an act of courage and compassion even though she had the opportunity to escape through the emergency exit first. But she chose her duty over her life. She became a martyr before medical assistance could help her survive. She put her own life at stake to protect the innocents on board. Neerja Bhanot was more than just a flight purser; she was the hero we never knew we needed.