The morning of 5th September 1986, began like any other day for Neerja Bhanot. The senior flight-purser was aboard Pan Am Flight 73 en route to New York from Mumbai. She was just 25 hours away from celebrating her 23rd birthday, but fate had other plans.
The flight had a routine stop-over at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, where 4 men dressed as security guards entered the aircraft, firing shots from automatic firearms, and took control of the aircraft.
Neerja immediately alerted the cockpit crew, who escaped through the overhead hatch. She too had the option of escaping unscathed, but she chose to stay.
One of the terrorists forced the flight crew to collect the passports of the Americans on board. Neerja, quickly realizing that the ulterior motive was to kill Americans, hid their passports and even discarded some down the rubbish chute. The passengers were held hostage for 17 hours after which the hijackers opened fire.
While Neerja could have fled the scene, she chose duty over her own well-being and plunged into the commotion. She valiantly put her own life at stake to protect the innocent passengers from the onslaught.
A barrage of bullets were fired at her as she was shielding 3 small children from being killed.
The hijackers were eventually captured by Pakistani commandos. Neerja did not survive, but her act of intrepidness saved 359 people from being killed.
For her bravery, the Government of India posthumously awarded her the Ashoka Chakra Award (India’s highest gallantry award for bravery in the face of the enemy during peacetime), and Bhanot became its youngest recipient. In 2004 the Indian Postal Service released a stamp commemorating her.
The Pakistan government awarded her with a Tamgha-e-Insaniyat or the “Medal of Excellence”, the 4th highest decoration given to any civilian in Pakistan.