On September 6,1986 five terrorists hijacked the US bound Pan Am Flight-73 flight at Karachi airport, and took control of the aircraft. One of the worst hijacks in aviation history it claimed 20 lives; this was the largest toll in a hijack until 9/11. The remaining 375 passengers and crew members would not have survived, if the air-hostess Neerja Bhanot, was not there.
Neerja, the vivacious and valiant senior flight purser of Pan Am was felled by hijackers bullets during the Pan Am holdup at Karachi airport on September 5 1986 - barely 25 hours before her birthday. A year ago, she had written to me, "I will do you proud" and the brave girl has kept her word.
Of late, Neerja was doing a lot of modelling. She had returned from Frankfurt on Tuesday (September 2) morning. She spent all of Wednesday shooting. On Thursday, she had yet another prestigious assignment. She reported for shooting at 9 a.m. and returned home only around 8 p.m. The hard day did not tell on her, she bounced about saying that she had the "most satisfying shooting day ever with Director Ayesha Sayani", whom she described as a highly talented professional. She had a light dinner and went to sleep after telling her mother to wake her up 90 minutes before the pick-up call from Pan Am. Her mother was keen that she should telephone Pan Am to get excused because she had a hard day. But a highly duty conscious Neerja did not oblige her mother.
Pan Am informed that the pickup time will be 1.15 a.m. (Sept 5). Her mother had to knock the door really hard to wake up Neerja. She had the usual cold bath. While she was getting ready, we talked. I asked her, how many friends had she invited to her birthday on Sept. 7. She replied, "None" because she would be returning only on Sunday morning. She wished the birthday party to be just a family affair.
I learnt of the Pan Am plane hijacking at Karachi, at a press conference. I felt uneasy. As I reached my own office, I had a telephone call from Mr. Irfan Khan of Hindustan Lever. He advised me to be with him, mainly because his office had better facilities to get the latest information from Karachi.
What happened at Karachi airport? As the terrorists rushed up the letter to "capture" the aircraft, Neerja dashed to inform the captain in the cockpit. A terrorist, however, caught her by her handy ponytail but she was able to shout the "hijack code". Another flight attendant who got her code conveyed it to the cockpit.
Obviously, the cabin crew, including the two pursers, did not know the action the cockpit crew takes on hearing the hijack code. It is now known that the 3 member cockpit crew - pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer - slipped away, leaving the aircraft, 400 passengers and the 13 member cabin-crew at the mercy of an emotionally surcharged 4 member team of burly terrorists. Since Neerja was the cabin-crew leader, she took over the "command", as soon as she found that the three seniors (cockpit crew) had deserted them.
Neerja's notes say that she had to follow up the hijacking warning with 6 steps. In the Karachi situation, she was required to "communicate" with the hijackers. Her smiles, even in deep distress, won a response. She looked after the passengers, within permissible limits. Her smiles were taken as an assurance by the passengers and crew members that the worst was over.
The power generator was running out of fuel and voltage was falling. Then "something" happened. Neerja was standing close to the leader of the terrorists. The light had become very dim. Suddenly, guns began vomiting fire within the aircraft. Neerja jumped to the emergency exit and threw it open.
According to Mrs. Malti Krishnaswamy and other eyewitnesses, Neerja was caught by the leader of the terrorists and shot point blank. In the dead body I saw bullets had hit her in the abdomen, on the shoulder near the neck and in the arm. When she opened the emergency exit, she could have herself been the first to slide down the chute. But she was the "captain", who believed that she had to be the last person to quit - alive or dead.
The terrorists guns became silent only after spitting out the last bullet. The cabin crew got together on the tarmac and found the "leader" missing. Two crew members ran back to the aircraft to find a profusely bleeding Neerja at her post of duty. The shock of being hit by bullets did not stop her heart-beat. She had been bleeding, from at Least two bullet wounds, for nearly 15 minutes. But she was in her full senses and told her 2 colleagues to take care of her bullet-hit arm. With a little assistance, she slid down the chute to be received at the other end by another member of the crew. She was helped to walk to the ambulance. But she became a martyr before any medical assistance could help her to survive.
Neerja Bhanot, India’s Youngest Ashok Chakra Winner: Brave In Life, Brave In Death