A selfless human being and the one with a courageous heart! Someone who could have easily escaped the plane hijacked by the terrorists, but she chose to stay put and help the passengers in the flight. And in the end, she sacrificed her life to save three kids by acting as their shield and getting hit by several bullets. Yes, we are talking about none other than India’s brave daughter, the flight attendant of Pan Am Flight 73, Neerja Bhanot.
The ill-fated flight
Neerja, who was originally a successful model, wanted to become an air hostess for which, she went to Miami for training. It was her ill-fate to have been an attendant on the Pan Am Flight 73, but the blessed fortune of all the people whose lives she saved that day. The flight had just landed in Karachi from Mumbai, and was preparing to take off for the United States, when it was hijacked.
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Neerja informed her senior members in the cockpit about the flight being hijacked. But, the crew of three American members including a pilot, a co-pilot and the flight engineer fled from the aircraft, thus leaving her in charge. The hijackers, who were a part of Abu Nidal Organisation, were allegedly backed by Libya. They asked Neerja for all the passports of the passengers to identify the Americans. But, she along with her co-workers hid the passports of 41 American passengers, so as to save them from the horrendous gunmen. And after almost 17-hour ordeal, the gunmen opened fire and explosives. Using her presence of mind, Neerja quickly let the passengers out through the emergency exit.
According to one of the 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 braveheart made sure she got all the passengers out of trouble and lost her life just two days before her 23rd birthday. Her father stated:
“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.”
Not only did she become an inspiration for millions of people all over the world and got numerous medals for her brave act, but was also the first woman recipient of the country’s highest bravery award to a civilian, the Ashok Chakra.
The Indian Postal Service released a stamp in 2004, to commemorate her bravery.
There is a square in Mumbai’s Ghatkopar (East) suburb, which is named after her and is called the Neerja Bhanot Chowk. It was inaugurated by Amitabh Bachchan in the early 1990s.
Neerja’s parents started the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust, using the insurance money and an equal contribution from Pan Am. Every year, this trust presents two special awards. One is given to a flight crew member from any part of the world, who works beyond the call of duty. And, the second one is awarded to an Indian woman who faced social injustice, but refused to let herself down with it, and instead, helped other women facing similar issues.
Image Courtesy: Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust
A biopic on Neerja Bhanot
Her heroic story has now been converted into a film where actress, Sonam Kapoor, is playing her part. The actress had unveiled her first look for the film through this tweet:
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She also posted this image of Neerja to pay a tribute to the brave daughter of India:
And, during the trailer launch of the film, Sonam even got emotional while answering a few questions from the media.
Here’s a look at the film’s poster:
The filmmakers also released Neerja’s last voice recording in which she could be heard making an announcement to the passengers of her Pan Am flight, just moments before the plane was hijacked. Listen to her voice, it surely gave us goosebumps thinking that Neerja did not even know while making this announcement that she would die that very day.
Audio/Video Courtesy: Fox Stars Hindi
Neerja’s family has given full support to the biopic movie. In fact, when Sonam Kapoor met Neerja’s mother for the first time, she called her laado and told Sonam that she reminded her of her deceased daughter. However, like a doting mother she did not hesitate from saying that her laado was prettier than Sonam.
Neerja was also awarded with the following medals posthumously:
1. Ashok Chakra Award, India
2. Tamgha-e-Insaaniyat (Awarded for showing incredible human kindness), Pakistan
3. Flight Safety Foundation Heroism Award, U.S.A.
4. Special Courage Award, US Government
5. Indian Civil Aviation Ministry’s Award
6. Justice for Crimes Award, United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia
We wish her soul to rest in peace always and pray that her family gets more strength each day to bear their unimaginable loss. We also hope that more people get inspired from her story, and help others when in need. And, we once again salute this brave soldier who made her nation proud with her selfless act.