Pan Am Flight 73

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Not to be confused with Pan Am Flight 103.

Not to be confused with Pan Am Flight 73 (1983), in which a Pan American 747, tail number N738PA, suffered a runway excursion on landing at Karachi. The aircraft was damaged beyond repair, but there were no fatalities.

Pan Am Flight 73
Pan Am Boeing 747 at Zurich Airport in May 1985.jpg
A similar aircraft in 1985
Hijacking summary
Date September 5, 1986
Summary Hijacking
Site Karachi, Pakistan
Passengers 360
Crew 19
Injuries (non-fatal) 120
Fatalities 20
Survivors 359
Aircraft type Boeing 747-121
Aircraft name Clipper Empress of the Seas
Operator Pan American World Airways
Registration N656PA
Flight origin Sahar International Airport
Mumbai, India
Stopover Jinnah International Airport
Karachi, Pakistan
Last stopover Frankfurt am Main Airport
Frankfurt am Main, West Germany
Destination John F. Kennedy Int'l Airport
New York, United States

Pan Am Flight 73, a Pan American World Airways Boeing 747-121, was hijacked on September 5, 1986, while on the ground at Karachi, Pakistan, by four armed Palestinian men of the Abu Nidal Organization. The aircraft, with 360 passengers on board, had just arrived from Sahar International Airport in Mumbai, India, and was preparing to depart Jinnah International Airport in Karachi for Frankfurt Airport in Frankfurt am Main, West Germany, ultimately continuing on to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, United States.[1] The motivation for the hijacking was to attack the Israeli defense ministry, using the aircraft as a missile.

Twenty of the passengers were killed during the hijacking, of which 12 were from India and the rest were from United States, Pakistan and Mexico. All the hijackers were arrested and sentenced to death in Pakistan. However, the sentences were later commuted to life in prison against the wishes of India and the United States.[2]

Hijacking at Karachi, Pakistan[edit]

The incident began as passengers boarded the Frankfurt-bound aircraft in Karachi. A subsequent FBI investigation revealed that the hijack occurred despite the presence of armed agents near the aircraft. The four hijackers were dressed as Karachi airport security guards and were armed with assault rifles, pistols, grenades, and plastic explosive belts. At about 6:00 a.m. local time, the hijackers drove a van that had been modified to look like an airport security vehicle through a security checkpoint up to one of the boarding stairways to Pan Am Flight 73.

The hijackers stormed up the stairways into the plane, fired shots from an automatic weapon, and seized control of the aircraft. Flight attendants were able to alert the cockpit crew using intercom, allowing the pilot, co-pilot, and flight engineer to flee through an overhead hatch in the cockpit.[3]

Safarini takes control[edit]

Within a short time after seizing control of the aircraft, hijacker Zayd Safarini realized that the crew had escaped off the plane so was therefore forced to negotiate with the officials. First and business class passengers were ordered to go towards the back of the plane. At the same time, passengers at the back of the plane were ordered forward. Since the plane was nearly full, passengers sat down in the aisles, galleys and door exits. At approximately 10:00 a.m., Safarini then went through the plane and he arrived at the seat of Rajesh Kumar, a 29-year-old Indian American California resident who had recently been naturalized as an American citizen. Safarini ordered Kumar to come to the front of the aircraft, to kneel at the front doorway of the aircraft and to face the front of the aircraft with his hands behind his head. He negotiated with officials, in particular Viraf Daroga, the head of Pan Am's Pakistan operation, that if the crew wasn't sent on the plane within 15 minutes then Kumar would be shot. Shortly thereafter, Safarini became impatient with the officials and grabbed Kumar and shot him in the head in front of witnesses both on and off the aircraft. Safarini then heaved Kumar out of the door onto the tarmac below. Pakistan personnel on the tarmac reported that Kumar was still breathing when he was placed in an ambulance, but he was pronounced dead on the way to the hospital in Karachi.

Safarini then joined the hijackers and ordered the flight attendants to collect the passports of all passengers. The flight attendants complied with this request, risking their own lives. During the collection of the passports, one stewardess, Neerja Bhanot, the senior flight purser, believed passengers with American passports would be singled out by the hijackers. She proceeded to hide some of the American passports under a seat, and dumped the rest down a rubbish chute.

After the passports had been collected one of the crew members came onto the intercom and asked for Michael John Thexton, a British citizen, to come to the front of the plane. He then went through the curtain into the front of the plane where he came face to face with Safarini who was holding Thexton's passport. He then asked Thexton if he was a soldier and if he had a gun, Thexton replied "No". He then ordered Thexton onto his knees. Safarini then told the officials that if anyone came near the plane that he would go on to kill another passenger. Viraf Daroga then told Safarini that there was a crew member on board that was able to use the cockpit radio and asked him to negotiate through radio. Safarini then went back to Thexton and asked him whether he would like a drink of water, to which Thexton replied "Yes." Safarini also asked Thexton if he was married, and claimed he did not like all this violence and killing and said that the Americans and Israelis had taken over his country and was unable to lead a proper life.

Then one of the hijackers ordered Thexton back through the plane to a seat. The hijack stalemate continued on into the night. During the stalemate, one of the flight attendants secretly removed a page from her manual that explained all the procedures for the 3R aircraft door and placed it inside of a magazine and then handed it to the passenger near the door. She instructed him to "read" the magazine and then close it up, but refer to it later if necessary. This page included information on how to open the exit door and deploy the slide down to the apron. About 9:00 p.m. the auxiliary power unit shut down, all lighting turned off, and emergency lights came on. Passengers at the front were order toward the back, while passengers at the back were ordered forward. Since the aisles were already full of passengers, those passengers standing just sat down.

With the plane out of power and sitting in near darkness a hijacker at the 1L door said a prayer and then aimed to shoot at the explosive belt the other hijacker at the 1R door was wearing. The intent was to cause an explosion massive enough to kill all passengers and crew on board, as well as themselves. Since the cabin was so dark, the hijacker missed causing only a small detonation. Immediately the hijackers began shooting their weapons into the cabin at passengers and attempted to throw their grenades. Yet again the lack of light caused them to not pull pins fully and create small explosions. Ultimately it was their bullets that created most damage since each bullet would bounce off the aircraft and create crippling shrapnel. The flight attendant at the 3L door decided it was time to take action and opened the door and although the slide did not deploy several passengers jumped down the 15 ft to the Tarmac, including crew. The passenger that was near 3R had read the page the flight attendant earlier gave him and was able to successfully open that door. It was the only door opened to have the slide deploy. Ultimately this slide allowed for more passengers to evacuate safely and without injuries. Neerja Bhanot assisted a number of passengers to escape from the flight, then she laid down her life shielding three children from the bullets fired by the terrorists. Twenty passengers were killed and over a hundred were injured, but many escaped the ordeal including Michael Thexton,[4] who came close to death a few hours before and returned to the U.K. The hijackers were arrested in the terminal trying to get away from the airport.


Pakistan quickly sent its SSG Division and Army Rangers were put on high-alert. The situation came to an end when hijackers opened fire on the passengers aboard the plane. Passengers fled the aircraft through emergency exits, and Pakistani commandos responded to the gunfire by storming the plane. The commando unit was headed by Brigadier-General T.M Tiger. The Shaheen Company of the 1st Battalion of the Pakistan Army's Special Service Group (SSG), were employed to carry out the operation. Casualties were heavy, with twenty-two dead and more than 150 injured.[5]


The 380 total passengers plus crew on Pan Am 73 were citizens of 14 different countries. Citizens of India represented roughly 25% of the people on board the flight, and over 60% of those killed.


Nationality Passengers Crew Total Victims
 Algeria 3 - 3
 Belgium 2 - 2
 Canada 30 - 30
 Denmark 8 - 8
 France 4 1 5
 Germany 81 3 84
 India 91 8 99 13
 Ireland 5 - 5
 Italy 21 - 21
 Mexico 8 - 8 2
 Pakistan 44 - 44 3
 Sweden 2 - 2
 United Kingdom 15 4 19
 United States 41 3 44 2
Total 361 19 380 20


On July 6, 1988, five men were convicted in Pakistan for their roles in the hijacking and murders and sentenced to death: Zayd Hassan Abd al-Latif Safarini, Wadoud Muhammad Hafiz al-Turki, Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim, Muhammad Abdullah Khalil Hussain ar-Rahayyal, and Muhammad Ahmed al-Munawar.[6] The sentences were later commuted to life in prison.

Safarini was released from prison in September 2001.[6] The other four prisoners have also been released, reportedly in January 2008.[6]

On September 28, 2001, Safarini was captured by the FBI in Bangkok. He was taken to the United States where on May 13, 2005 he was sentenced to a 160-year prison term.[6] At the plea proceeding, Safarini admitted that he and his fellow hijackers committed the offenses as members of the Abu Nidal Organization, also called the ANO, a terrorist organization.

Libyan involvement and legal action[edit]

Libya has been accused of sponsoring the hijacking, as well as carrying out the bombings of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988 and UTA Flight 772 in 1989.

In August 2003, Libya accepted responsibility for "the actions of its officials" in respect of the bombing Pan Am Flight 103, but was silent on the question of the Pan Am Flight 73 hijacking.[7] Libya offered $2.7 billion USD in compensation to the families of the 270 victims of Pan Am Flight 103 and,[7] in January 2004, agreed to pay $170 million to the families of the 170 UTA victims.[8] The seven American UTA victims' families refused the offer and instead filed a claim for $2.2 billion against Libya. From 2004 to 2006 the U.S. and UK opened up relations with Libya, including removing sanctions and removing the country as a sponsor of terrorism.

In June 2004, a volunteer group of families and victims from the incident, Families from Pan Am Flight 73, was formed to work toward a memorial for those killed in the incident, to seek the truth behind this terrorist attack, and to hold those responsible for it accountable. On April 5, 2006, the law firm of Crowell & Moring LLP, representing the surviving passengers, estates and family members of the hijacking victims, announced it was filing a civil suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeking $10 billion in compensatory damages, plus unspecified punitive damages, from Libya, Muammar al-Gaddafi and the five convicted hijackers. The lawsuit alleged Libya provided the Abu Nidal Organization with material support and also ordered the attack as part of a Libyan-sponsored terrorist campaign against American, European and Israeli interests.[9]

British media that was critical of normalisation of relations between Gaddafi and the West reported in March 2004 (days after Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Tripoli) that Libya was behind the hijacking.[10]

Reward and reported killing of accused[edit]

As mentioned, hijacker Zayd Hassan Abd al-Latif Safarini was captured by US authorities after his release from prison in Pakistan. He is serving his 160 year sentence at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana.

On December 3, 2009, the FBI in coordination with the State Department announced a $5M reward for information that leads to the capture of each of the four remaining hijackers of Pan Am 73, who were reported to have been released from prison in Pakistan in 2008.[6][11]

One of the four, Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim, was reported killed in a drone strike on January 9, 2010 in Pakistan. His death was never confirmed and he remains on the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists and Rewards for Justice lists.[12][13][14]


The aircraft was a four-engined Boeing 747-121 delivered to Pan Am on 18 June 1971, registered in the United States as N656PA and named Clipper Live Yankee by the airline. It was latter renamed and at the time of the incident was named Clipper Empress of the Seas.

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

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