For today’s #WorthyWednesday (#WorthyThursday?), we are celebrating an incredibly brave and beautiful woman, Neerja Bhanot.
Most known for her heroic last stand during the 1986 terrorist hijacking of Panam Flight 73, she was only 23 years old when she faced four gunmen, saved 359 lives, and died shielding 3 children from a hail of bullets.
Neerja was born September 6th, 1962 as the result of many prayers by her parents for a daughter. They had already had two sons, and her father gave “double thanks” when he heard the news from the nurse.
By all accounts, she was a bright, affectionate, and sensitive girl, who attended the Bombay Scottish School, a highly elite institution and later St. Xavier’s College.
When she was eighteen, she was stopped in the street by a scout and so began her modeling career. Once she graduated, she went to the Gulf to fulfill an ad-based arranged marriage. Unfortunately, her husband was not the man he had promised himself to be, and mistreated her to the point of withholding financial support and food. It was difficult for her to even get the money to call her family, and after two months she went back to Mumbai in order to fulfill a modeling contract.
Rather than return to her abusive husband, she ended up applying for a job with PanAm Airlines. She was one of the 80 candidates chosen out of 10,000 applications. After attending training in Miami, she was given the job of head purser due to her stellar performance, a great accomplishment given her young age. In tandem with her time at PanAm, she pursued a successful modeling career.
The fateful day came not long after she began her new job. The flight began as any other. Beginning in Mumbai and ending in New York City, the plane stopped in Karachi for a routine stopover. Before the flight could take off, four men dressed as security guards ran onto the plane. The three cockpit employees escaped as soon as the terror started, making Neerja the senior official onboard.
Thus began the seventeen-hour ordeal.
The terrorists immediately killed one of the passengers and it soon became evident that the attack was politically motivated and they were searching for Americans to murder. They ordered Neerja to collect the passports of everyone onboard, and rather than allow more to be killed, she found ways to destroy and hide the passports of the forty Americans on the flight.
Despite the circumstances, Neerja maintained a calm exterior, reassuring the passengers and doing her best to prevent the terrorists from hurting more people. After several hours, the airplane lights began to flicker as the engine ran out of power. Losing patience, the terrorists opened fire onto the passengers, but not before emergency doors were opened, allowing people to escape.
She could have run out but stayed by one of the doors to ensure everyone would get out. She was shot multiple times and died before medical assistance could arrive. It was the day before she was to turn 24, and rather than welcome their daughter home for her birthday dinner, her parents received her coffin.
Neerja Bhanot may have died young, but her influence and legacy continued beyond her time on this earth. She was posthumously given several awards for her actions, and became the youngest recipient of India’s highest recognition of bravery, the Ashok Chakra. Her parents instituted the Neerja Bhanot PanAm Trust for employees that went above and beyond the call of duty. In 2016, Ram Madhvani directed a film called Neerja, which told the story of her life and the hijacking.
Neerja Bhanot was a woman who refused to let others tell her who she was. She worked hard, shone brightly, and died saving the lives of so many people. May we all continue to remember and uplift those brave souls who have protected others in times of need.