Neerja Bhanot the 22-year-old was a hero who saved the lives of 359 people on board Pan Am 73 (Sep 5, 1986), where she was the chief purser. She lost her life while saving the lives of the passengers in the hijacked plane. He father, Harish Bhanot wrote a heartfelt letter, A Father Reminisces. Here’s what it reads:
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.
In the normal course of events, Neerja would have been back in Bombay on Sunday, September 7, her birthday. But instead of that we collected her coffin from the airport. She, who died so that others could live, was cremated the following day at 11 a.m. amidst chanting of her favourite mantras as we said “Goodbye darling, please keep coming.” The young model has set a model for her class the world over.
Neerja was a fruit of our long prayers for a daughter. We had two sons and were longing for a daughter. It was Sept. 7, 1962 at Chandigarh – where I was posted at that time. The maternity ward matron rang up to inform me that we had been blessed with a baby-girl. I was very happy to hear this and gave her a “double thanks”. She thought I had got her wrong and so she repeated “It is a daughter”. I explained to her the daughter had already 2 brothers and that is why it was an occasion for “double thanks”. Neerja was a “no problem” child, right from day one. She was a “no nonsense” girl right from the start. She went to Sacred Heart School (Chandigarh). Her family name was “Lado” and I do not think I had called her Neerja more than a score of times in her 23 years.
We came to Bombay in March 1974. She was a student of sixth standard. I took her to Bombay Scottish High School for admission. Everybody had told me that admission would be impossible. But one look at her and that great principal gave a lie to canards that entry into the school was linked with the size of “donation”.
Neerja was a very sensitive, deeply affectionate and an extremely decent person who believed in sharing with her people all her joys but not the jolts. She had well defined principles and there was little room for compromise in that area. Of the 23 years of her life, she had lived 22 years and 10 months under bracing sunshine. The two month long ugly patch was a dowry cloud. Following her ad-based arranged marriage in March 1985, she had gone to the Gulf to join her husband to set up a happy home. But the marriage went sour within two months. She was starved off finance and food in a foreign land and the bright girl lost five kg of weight in two months. She had to borrow money from the husband even to make a telephone call.
Before the marriage, it was made clear that it would be a dowry less marriage. But when she reached the “ordained home” she was told that even a “very poor man gives something to his daughter in marriage”. She came back to Bombay to honour a modelling contract. An ugly letter followed, listing terms for her return, which no person with self-respect could accept. The letter listed a straight formula: accept the humiliating terms without a whimper and return at your own cost or “we will separate”. The worst was that the letter asked her as to what was she? “You are just a graduate”. The young girl could not pocket this. She applied for a flight attendant’s job with Pam Am. There were nearly 10,000 applications but Neerja Harish easily found place among the top 80. Some of her close friends in Pan Am knew of her marriage mishap. They say that Neerja had been clearly stating that if one day something happened to her, please see that even “his” shadow did not fall on her dead body. The girl with sinews of steel accepted the challenge “what are you” and has told “what she was”.
The Pan Am job was a great success from day one. She went to Miami for training as a flight attendant but she returned home as a Purser. Nothing can, possibly, state her Pan Am stature better than a letter received from her instructor (at Miami), Mr. Keith D. Smith saying: “The courageous manner in which she lived was very evident in the courageous manner in which she died. Shielding 3 small children from danger was a bold, daring and brave act that so dignified Neerja’s personality. She was a wonderful human being. All those who were concerned with her Miami training, including the ‘local mother’, have expressed similar assessment of Neerja.”