September 5, 2019

ON THIS DAY IN 1986, FLIGHT ATTENDANT NEERJA BHANOT DIED SAVING THE LIVES OF PASSENGERS ON PAN AM FLIGHT # 73: She was just two days short of her 22nd birthday.

Flight #73 originated in Mumbai and was ultimately bound for New York. It was initially carrying 394 passengers, 9 infants, 19 Indian flight attendants and an American pilot and co-pilot.

During a stopover in Karachi, four heavily-armed hijackers—part of the Abu Nidal Organization–stormed the plane. Alerted to the hijacking, the pilot and co-pilot escaped from the cockpit via the Inertial Reel Escape Device, thus leaving the aircraft immobilized on the ground.

Realizing that the plane was pilotless, the hijackers sought out an American passenger, eventually singling out a 29-year-old Californian named Rajesh Kumar. Kumar was ordered to kneel facing the front of the aircraft with his hands behind his head. They threatened to kill him if Pan Am’s negotiators did not send them a flight crew immediately.

Bloodthirsty and dissatisfied with the speed of the negotiators’ response, the chief hijacker shot Kumar in the head and dumped him onto the tarmac. He died before he reached the hospital. Thereafter, they told the negotiators, a passenger would be executed every 15 minutes until a pilot was produced.

The hijackers then turned to purser Neerja Bhanot, who remained calm and collected even when a gun was put to her head. They demanded that she and the flight attendants under her control collect the passports from all passengers. Believing that the hijackers intended to kill the more than 40 Americans on board, she had the flight attendants hide some of the American passports in the seats and dumped the rest of them down the rubbish chute.

For a time, the hijackers considered executing a British national instead, but ultimately did not.

Meanwhile, Bhanot surreptitiously handed a passenger the instructions, hidden in a magazine, for how to open the door and deploy the slide in case the opportunity arose.

The hijackers were stymied. By late evening, the auxiliary power unit shut down, causing all but the emergency lights to come down. At that point, the hijackers tried to set off the explosive belt one of them was wearing. If they’d been successful, they could have blown up everyone on board. Instead, the explosion was rather puny. Immediately, they began shooting their guns and throwing grenades. With bullets ricocheting off the walls, passengers were dying everywhere.

In the bloody melee, Bhanot was able to open one of the aircraft doors. She could have escaped herself, but instead one-by-one she assisted passengers out the door. She died as a result of wounds suffered shielding three children from the hail of bullets.

(The passenger who had been slipped the instructions by Bhanot got his door open too and was able to deploy the slide. So Bhanot gets credit for causing two doors to open.)

Sources differ slightly on the number of dead and injured. I am going with 22 dead, including Bhanot, and 140 injured. Without her, the carnage likely would have been a lot worse.

All four hijackers were arrested, convicted and imprisoned in Pakistan. In late September 2001, Pakistani authorities released the chief hijacker, but he was picked up by American law enforcement authorities shortly thereafter, apparently with the blessing of the Pakistani government. He is currently serving 160 years in a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. His fellow terrorists were released in 2008 over the objections of the United States. One was reported dead in a 2010 drone strike, but his death is unconfirmed.

A movie called Neerja was made about Bhanot’s heroism in 2016.  (Unlike most real-life figures portrayed by gorgeous actors or actresses, Neerja Bhanot was drop-dead gorgeous herself. But beautiful or not, she had the right stuff.)

Rest in peace, Neerja.  Americans in particular have reason to thank you.

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