She was the youngest recipient of India’s highest peace time award Ashok Chakra. This was awarded after she had saved the life of 360 passengers from the hands of terrorists.
On 5th September 1986, the Pan AM Flight 73 was high jacked by the terrorists during a stopover in Karachi, Pakistan. The aircraft was carrying 365 passengers and 19 crew members. The intention of the terrorists was to free the Palestinian Prisoners in Cyprus. The hijackers were a part of the Abu Nidal Organisation, a terrorist organisation backed by Libya. These were dressed as Karachi airport security guards and were armed with assault rifles, pistols, grenades and plastic explosive belts.
The main targets of the terrorists were the American citizens. Soon after the hijacking took place, the terrorists dragged an American citizen to the exit and shot him dead. Later they instructed Neerja Bhanot to collect all the passports so that they can easily identify the Americans. But Neerja Bhanot along with other attendants hid the passports of 43 others. By this, the terrorists couldn’t identify Americans and non-Americans.
But after 17 hours of hijacking, the terrorists open fired fearing a commando attack. Neerja assessed the risk this could pose to the life of the passengers. Soon, she opened one of the aeroplane doors, and started helping other passengers to escape. She even guided the passengers to the emergency exit.
Neerja knew that this act of her can end up her life. While assisting the passengers to escape, she laid down her life protecting three children from the bullets fired by the terrorists. This act of bravery prevented her from celebrating her birthday which was just two days away i.e., September 7th. All of the hijackers were arrested by Pakistani authorities and sent to prison.
“The courageous manner in which she lived was very evident in the courageous manner in which she died. Shielding 3 small children from danger was a bold, daring and brave act that so dignified Neerja’s personality. She was a wonderful human being. All those who were concerned with her Miami training, including the ‘local mother’, have expressed similar assessment of Neerja”, these were the words of her instructor (at Miami), Mr. Keith D. Smith.
She was born to Rama Bhanot and Harish in Chandigarh. At a very young age she became popular and was featured in several advertisements. She was called as “Laado” by her family members. There’s a square called Neerja Bhanot Chowk which is named after her in Ghatkopar, Mumbai. “The Heroine of the Hijack” is how the international society recognises her for her brave act.