Neerja Bhanot

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Neerja Bhanot
Neerja Bhanot
Born (1963-09-07)7 September 1963
Chandigarh, Punjab, India
Died 5 September 1986(1986-09-05) (aged 22)
Karachi, Sindh, Pakistan
Nationality Indian
Occupation Purser, Model
Known for Pan Am Flight 73
Parent(s) Rama Bhanot
Harish Bhanot
Awards Full List

Neerja Bhanot, AC (7 September 1963 – 5 September 1986)[1][2] was an Indian model and purser for the airline Pan American World Airways who lost her life trying to save passengers on Pan Am Flight 73, which was hijacked by terrorists during a stopover in Karachi, Pakistan, on 5 September 1986. Posthumously, she became the youngest recipient of India's highest peacetime gallantry, the Ashok Chakra Award, as well as several other accolades from the Government of Pakistan and the United States. Her life and heroism inspired the biopic Neerja released in 2016 and directed by Ram Madhvani. She was shot while helping passengers escape through the emergency exits.[2][3]

Early life and education[edit]

Bhanot was born in Chandigarh, India, and brought up in Mumbai in a Punjabi Brahmin family.[4] She was the daughter of Harish Bhanot, a Mumbai-based journalist, and Rama Bhanot. She had two brothers: Akhil and Aneesh Bhanot.[5] She received her early schooling at Sacred Heart Senior Secondary School in Chandigarh. When the family moved to Bombay (later renamed to Mumbai), she continued her studies at Bombay Scottish School and then graduated from St. Xavier's College, Mumbai.[1] It was in Mumbai where she was first spotted for a modelling assignment which began her modelling career.[6] She was a huge fan of actor Rajesh Khanna and used to refer to quotes from his films throughout her life.[7]


Bhanot applied for a flight attendant job with Pan Am, when in 1985 it decided to have an all Indian cabin crew for its Frankfurt to India routes. Upon selection, she went to Miami, Florida for training as a flight attendant, but returned as a purser.[1][8] She also had a successful modelling career simultaneously during her work at Pan Am.


Bhanot was the senior flight purser on Pan Am Flight 73 flying from Mumbai to the United States, which was hijacked by four armed men on 5 September 1986 at Karachi airport in Pakistan. The aircraft was carrying 365 passengers and 13 crew members. The terrorists wanted to fly to Cyprus with the goal of freeing Palestinian prisoners in Cyprus. Bhanot was able to alert the cockpit crew as soon as the hijackers boarded the plane, and as the plane was on the tarmac, the three-member cockpit crew of pilot, co-pilot and the flight engineer left the aircraft through an overhead hatch in the cockpit. As the senior-most cabin crew member, Bhanot took charge of the situation inside the plane.[8][9][10]

The hijackers were part of the Abu Nidal Organization, a terrorist organization backed by Libya; they were targeting Americans and American assets. In the early minutes of the hijacking, they identified an American citizen, dragged him to the exit, shot him dead and threw his body on to the tarmac. The terrorists then instructed Bhanot to collect the passports of all the passengers so that they could identify the other Americans on board. She and the other attendants under her charge hid the passports of the remaining 43 Americans on board; some under a seat and the rest down a rubbish chute so that the hijackers could not differentiate between American and Non-American passengers.[8][9][11]

After 17 hours, the hijackers opened fire and set off explosives. Bhanot opened one of the airplane doors, and started helping the other passengers escape. If she wanted, she could have been the first one to jump out and flee from the aircraft when she opened the door, but she decided not to and instead started helping the other passengers escape. According to a surviving passenger, "She was guiding the passengers to the emergency exit. That is when the terrorists were firing constantly fearing a commando attack. They saw Neerja relentlessly trying to help the passengers out and that is when they caught her by her ponytail and shot her point blank."[12] She was shot while shielding 3 American children from a hail of gunfire from the terrorists. Out of a total of 44 American passengers, two were killed during the hijacking. A child on board, then aged seven, is now a captain for a major airline and has stated that Bhanot has been his inspiration, and that he owes every day of his life to her.[13] She was recognized internationally as "the heroine of the hijack" and became the youngest recipient of the Ashok Chakra Award, India's most prestigious gallantry award for bravery during peace time.[8][9][10]

In addition to saving the lives of many hostages, Bhanot had also helped prevent the plane from getting off the ground. She posthumously received multiple awards for her courage from the United States government, and the Tamgha-e-Pakistan from Pakistan, an award given for showing great human kindness.[9][14][15]

Identities of the hijackers[edit]

The hijackers were members of the Abu Nidal Organisation.[9] All of the hijackers were arrested by Pakistani authorities and sent to prison. In 2001, one of the hijackers who shot at passengers, Zayd Hassan Abd Al-Latif Masud Al Safarini, was released under a deal by Pakistan and captured by the FBI in Bangkok, a day later. An Associated Press report from 2009 states that four men were released after completing their jail terms and deported to the Palestinian territories against the wishes of the United States government, but there is ambiguity about their whereabouts.[16] The FBI then announced a $5 million bounty for their capture. In January 2010, Pakistani intelligence officials announced that a drone attack in the North Waziristan tribal region had killed one of the released hijackers, Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim. His death was never confirmed and he remains on the FBI Most Wanted Terrorists and Rewards for Justice Program lists.[17][18]


Her loyalties to the passengers of the aircraft in distress will forever be a lasting tribute to the finest qualities of the human spirit.

—Ashok Chakra citation[1]

For her bravery, the Government of India posthumously awarded Bhanot the Ashoka Chakra Award, India's highest gallantry award for bravery in the face of the enemy during peace time. She is the youngest recipient and the first woman recipient of this award.[1][19][20] In 2004 the Indian Postal Service released a stamp commemorating her.[21][22]

After her death, her family set up the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust with insurance money and an equal contribution from Pan Am. The trust presents two awards every year, one for a flight crew member, worldwide, who acts beyond the call of duty and another, the Neerja Bhanot Award, to an Indian woman who when faced with social injustice, bravely faced the situation and helped other women in similar social distress. The award includes a sum of INR 1,50,000 (approximately $2,000 USD) a trophy and a citation.[8][23][24]

Bhanot's brother Aneesh went to Washington, D.C., in 2005 to receive the "Justice for Crimes Award" awarded posthumously to her as part of the Annual Crime Rights Week at a ceremony held at the United States Attorney's office for the District of Columbia.[25] In 2006, she and the other Pan Am Flight 73 flight attendants and Pan Am's flight director for Pakistan were awarded the Special Courage award by the United States Department of Justice.[15]

Bhanot House of Austrey School was named in her honour.[26][27]

The Civil Aviation Ministry of India conferred an honor on Bhanot posthumously on 18 February 2010 in New Delhi on the occasion of the launch of the celebrations of the centenary of Indian aviation.

On 2 July 2016, the Bharat Gaurav Award was conferred on her at a ceremony held at the House of Commons, UK Parliament in London, England.[28]

Personal life and family[edit]

Bhanot had an arranged marriage in March 1985 and joined her husband in Doha, Qatar. However, the marriage soon deteriorated following alleged dowry pressure and she returned to her parents' home in Mumbai within two months.

Bhanot had two brothers, Akhil and Aneesh. Her father, Harish Bhanot, worked as a journalist with The Hindustan Times for more than 30 years and died on New Year's Day in 2008 in Chandigarh at the age of 86.[29] Her mother died on 5 December 2015.

Popular culture[edit]

  • The Neerja I Knew – a coffee table book conceptualized by her brother Aneesh Bhanot and published as a tribute to Bhanot consisting of several chapters written by people who knew her.[30][31]
  • Neerja – a 2016 Indian Hindi-language biographical thriller drama film written by Saiwyn Quadras and directed by Ram Madhvani starring Sonam Kapoor in title role of "Head Purser" Neerja Bhanot. Sonam Kapoor received a special mention National Award for her acting in the film in 2017.



  1. ^ a b c d e Vij, Illa (13 November 2000). "Brave in life, brave in death". The Tribune. Tribune Trust. 
  2. ^ a b "'I saw Neerja being shot in the head' – Times of India". The Times of India. Retrieved 2016-12-03. 
  3. ^ Mohan, Megha (2016-03-31). "Inside a hijack: The unheard stories of the Pan Am 73 crew". BBC News. Retrieved 2016-12-03. 
  4. ^ "The glamorous lives of '80s air hostesses in India". Quartz. 
  5. ^ Avantika Bhuyan (5 March 2016). "It is incredible how blessed this project has been: Atul Kasbekar". 
  6. ^ "'The Sky Was Her Limit". The Indian Express. Retrieved 2016-02-23. 
  7. ^ "Neerja: A fond tribute to a forgotten hero". Retrieved 14 January 2017. 
  8. ^ a b c d e "The story of India's bravest flight attendant". 
  9. ^ a b c d e "Neerja Bhanot – The Indian Flight Attendant Who Saved 360 Lives". The Better India. 
  10. ^ a b "The hijack heroine". 
  11. ^ "MY STORY: I Survived the Pan Am Hijack During Which Neerja Bhanot Lost Her Life". The Better India. 2016-02-22. Retrieved 2016-12-03. 
  12. ^ "'I saw Neerja being shot in the head' – Times of India". Retrieved 14 January 2017. 
  13. ^ "Who is Neerja Bhanot & How Pan Am-73 flight was hijacked in Sept 1986?". Retrieved 2016-12-11. 
  14. ^ "Home". Retrieved 14 January 2017. 
  15. ^ a b c "Special Courage Awards: Pan Am Flight 73 flight attendants and the Pan Am Director for Pakistan". United States Department of Justice. Archived from the original on 13 March 2008. 
  16. ^ "Here's What Happened to the Hijackers of Neerja's Pan Am Flight 73". Retrieved 14 January 2017. 
  17. ^ "Most Wanted Terrorists". Wanted by the FBI. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Archived from the original on 9 August 2015. 
  18. ^ "Wanted for Terrorism". United States Department of State. 
  19. ^ "Nominations invited for Neerja Bhanot Awards". The Indian Express. Indian Express Limited. 5 September 2006. Archived from the original on 5 December 2008. 
  20. ^ "The times of India". 
  21. ^ "Stamp on Neerja released". The Tribune. Tribune Trust. 9 October 2004. 
  22. ^ Jaffry, Nasir (4 January 2008). "Pak frees Pan Am hijack quartet". The Telegraph. ABP Group. 
  23. ^ "NeerjaTrust – Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust". Karmayog. Archived from the original on 26 July 2011. 
  24. ^ "Mumbai based Chanda Asani to get Neerja Bhanot Award 2008". Business Standard. 16 September 2008. 
  25. ^ a b "America honours Neerja Bhanot". The Times of India. The Times Group. 13 April 2005. 
  26. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 8 November 2015. Retrieved 23 August 2015. 
  27. ^ "Ermine Schools – Ermine". Retrieved 14 January 2017. 
  28. ^ "Neerja Bhanot Conferred 'Bharat Gaurav Award' In London". Retrieved 14 January 2017. 
  29. ^ "Journalist, former MC member Harish Bhanot passes away". The Indian Express. Indian Express Limited. 2 January 2008. Archived from the original on 5 December 2008. 
  30. ^ "Book in the memory of Neerja released". 
  31. ^ "The Neerja I Knew: 'This book is tribute to my younger sister who showed true meaning of courage'". 18 February 2016. Retrieved 14 January 2017. 
  32. ^ Sengupta, Durga M (11 February 2016). "Pakistan bans Neerja now. But why then did they award the Pan Am hero?". Archived from the original on 20 April 2016. Retrieved 10 April 2016. 
  33. ^ "FSF Heroism Award". Flight Safety Foundation. 2011. Retrieved 2016-04-10. 
  34. ^ "Centre honours Neerja Bhanot". The Times of India. 2011-02-19. Retrieved 2016-04-10. 
  35. ^ "Civil Aviation Ministry honours air hostess Neerja Bhanot who was killed by terrorists". Journalism of Courage Archive. The Indian EXPRESS. 2011-02-19. Retrieved 2016-04-10. 
  36. ^

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