The Heroine of the Hijacking

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On September 5, 1986, a Boeing 747-121 named Clipper Empress of the Seas operated by Pan American Airways landed at Karachi airport for an early morning scheduled stopover.
Pan Am Flight 73 was carrying 394 passengers, 9 infants, an American flight crew and 13 Indian flight attendants. 109 passengers disembarked at Karachi, and a fresh busload of passengers were just reaching the parked 747 when two hijackers impersonating Pakistan Airport Security Force sped up to the aircraft in a van with siren and flashing lights.
Rushing up to the aircraft stairs while firing shots into the air, armed with assault rifles, pistols, grenades, and plastic explosive belts. Two more hijackers joined, one in Pakistani shalwar kameez and carrying a briefcase full of hand grenades. Two Kuwait Airlines staff members working on an aircraft nearby were killed by gunfire as another hijacker fired at the feet of one flight attendant forcing him to seal the aircraft exit. As the situation began to unfold, senior flight purser, Neerja Bhanot, still out of sight from any of the hijackers, managed to relay the hijack code to the cockpit crew. Thanks to Neerja’s quick actions, both the Captain and First Officer managed to escape the 747 via the Inertial Reel Escape Device. The aircraft was now immobile.
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Within half an hour, the hijackers had secured control of Pan Am Flight 73. Lead hijacker Zayd Hassan Abd al-Latif Safarini soon realized that the Captain and First Officer had escaped, now forcing the hijackers to negotiate with officials. Immediately, Safarini ordered all First and business class passengers to go towards the back of the plane. while passengers at the back of the plane were ordered forward. Since the aircraft was almost carrying a full load, passengers were sitting wherever they could find place, down in the aisles, galleys and door exits. Safarini then went through the aircraft, stopping next to Rajesh Kumar, a 29-year-old resident of California, then ordering Kumar to go to the front of the aircraft, and kneel at the front doorway, with his hands behind his head.
 
Safarini demanded officials, as well as the head of Pan Am's Pakistan operation, to send a new crew to the plane within 15 minutes. His plan was to use the hijacked airliner to pick up Palestinian prisoners in both Cyprus and Israel. Shortly thereafter, a growingly impatient Safarini raised his gun and shot Kumar in the head directly in front of passengers, then heaved him out of the door onto the tarmac below. Pakistani personnel on the tarmac reported that Kumar was still breathing when he was placed in an ambulance, but sadly did not survive.
 
Safarini then ordered the flight attendants: Sunshine Vesuwala, and Madhvi Bahuguna, to begin collecting passports from all the passengers. Believing passengers with American passports would be singled out by the hijackers, Neerja Bhanot, senior flight purser, proceeded to hide some of the American passports under seats, and dumped the remainder down a trash chute.
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Night fell, and the stalemate continued. At approximately 21:00 hours, the auxiliary power unit(APU) was shut down, and emergency lighting came on. 17 hours after the ordeal began, the plane now out of power and sitting in darkness, one of the hijackers at the L1 door said a prayer and then raised his gun pointing at the explosive belt worn by another, and fired. Due to the cabins low light, the hijacker missed, causing only a small detonation. This Immediately sent the hijackers into a panic, and began shooting their weapons around the cabin, then attempting to throw their grenades. Yet again the darkness foiled their attempts to pull the pins sucessfully. Under a hail of bullets and shrapnel ricocheting off surfaces within the aircraft cabin, passengers scrambling, Senior flight purser, Neerja Bhanot managed to open an exit; and instead of leaping to safety, according to one surviving passenger, "She was guiding the passengers to the emergency exit. That is when the terrorists were firing constantly fearing a commando attack. They saw Neerja relentlessly trying to help the passengers out and that is when they caught her by her ponytail and shot her point blank."
 
The Pakistan Army Special Services Group (SSG) commandos and Rangers stormed the aircraft and sucessfully seized the hijackers once the passengers were clear. Lead hijacker Zayd Hassan Abd al-Latif Safarini was extradited to the U.S. by the Government of Pakistan. He is currently serving his 160-year sentence at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana. The remaining four prisoners were deported by Pakistani authorities to Palestine in 2008.
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Out of 394 passengers plus crew on Pan Am 73, Twenty passengers were killed, and over one hundred injured during the hijacking. Because of Neerja’s foresight in hiding the American passports, 42 out of 44 American passengers survived.
Neerja Bhanot was recognized internationally as "the heroine of the hijacking” , and for her bravery, the Government of India posthumously awarded Bhanot the Ashoka Chakra Award, India's highest gallantry award for bravery in the face of the enemy during peacetime. She is the youngest recipient and the first woman recipient of this award. 
 
Neerja was 22 years old.
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“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
 
-Mr Rogers
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1 comment


  • Bubba JR

    Not all hero’s wear capes. It would have been nice if the US Gov’t would have recognized her sacrifice in saving US lives. She could have easily saved herself but instead remained to help others.


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