The tragic events from 9/11 left a scar on our country that still hasn’t healed a decade and a half later. But how many of us were aware there was a similar, thwarted terrorist attack two decades earlier? In 1986, Pan Am Flight 73 was a flight originally destined for New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport that was hijacked on the ground in Karachi by Palestinian terrorists. We believe the plot had one primary goal: to kill Americans by crashing the plane into a building. And if it wasn’t for the quick thinking of the head flight attendant, Neerja Bhanot, they might have succeeded.
I’ve often wondered if I could remain calm in the presence of danger when faced with a situation that requires courage. Would I keep my cool? Would I be able to sacrifice my own safety for the sake of others? I’d like to think so. I’m sure we’d all like to believe we could be heroes.
Neerja Bhanot faced precisely that predicament and showed us all what true bravery looks like. She was clever and courageous in a time when it would have been easier to become panicked, terrified and frozen. She alerted the crew to the terrorists’ presence, so they could immediately evacuate the plane, making it more difficult for the terrorists to leave the runway. By hiding the Americans’ passports, she saved over 41 American lives. After the terrorists opened fire and detonated their explosives, she remained onboard to assist the evacuation, a time when most of us would have been the first off. She died shielding three unaccompanied American children from gunfire. From a total of 380 passengers and crew, 359 made it off alive thanks—in large part—to her.
Neerja was the youngest, and only female, to receive the Ashoka Chakra Award—India’s highest award for bravery. In 2005, she was posthumously awarded the Justice for Crimes Award and a year later received the Special Courage Award by the US Department of Justice.
As reported in The Better India, “Despite their irreplaceable loss, her parents, Rama and Harish Bhanot, soldiered on, and even found a fitting way to honour Neerja’s memory. With the insurance money they received after her death and an equal contribution from Pan Am, they set up the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust.” The trust presents awards to two women each year: one who overcomes social injustice and assists similarly situated women, and another to a member of an airline crew acting “above and beyond the call of duty.” These awards serve as an ongoing tribute of Neerja’s service on flight 73.
It’s unlikely any of us will face a situation so dire, but if we do, we look to the selfless example of Neerja Bhanot for strength and courage.
Read more about Neerja Bhanot here.