Remembering the Brave

I am disgusted by constantly seeing pictures of the San Bernardino murderers continually splashed across newspapers and on the internet. They represent the worst of humankind and deserve no visual recognition. They are the dregs of mankind and deserving of nothing but our revulsion and determination to stop their kind from promoting the murderous rampage seen everywhere in the world. 

They stand in stark contrast to a woman who would be 53 years old today had she not been gunned down by the same perverted and murderous motives as the jihadist terrorists. Her name is Neerja Bhanot and here is her picture.

Bhanot was the senior flight purser on Pan Am Flight 73 flying from Mumbai to the United States when it was hijacked by armed men on September 5, 1986 at the Karachi airport in Pakistan. There were 361 passengers and 19 crew members. Because of her quick thinking, Bhanot alerted the cockpit crew who escaped from an overhead hatch in the cockpit so that the aircraft could not be forcibly flown. The three-member American pilot, co-pilot, and flight engineer were following protocol procedures. 

The Palestinian hijackers were part of the terrorist Abu Nidal Organization that was backed by Libya. Conflicting reports indicate that the terrorists "were planning to use the hijacked plane to pick up Palestinian prisoners in both Cyprus and Israel. However, in 2006, surviving hostage Michael Thexton published a book in which he claimed he had heard the hijackers intended to crash the plane into a target in Israel (in the manner of 9/11).

Without the pilots, the aircraft would remain stationary. The hijackers then demanded that Bhanot and the other attendants collect passports so that Americans could be identified and murdered. Bhanot instructed the other flight attendants to hide the American passports and, as a result of this action, saved the lives of the Americans on board. Some of the passports were shoved under seats and the rest thrown down a rubbish chute.

In fact, "the hijacking of Pan Am Flight 73 was one of the most brutal international terrorist attacks to occur in the 1980s." One can only imagine the tension and fear aboard this plane and it is graphically portrayed in the movie titled Neerja which was released on February 19, 2016 as a joint venture film between Twenty-First Century Fox and Star India. As a biopic film, it dramatizes the 17 hours wherein Neerja Bhanot displayed incredible courage and grace under pressure as various governments and police forces dithered and terrorists murdered.

Born in Chandigarh, India, Bhanot received her schooling at Sacred Heart Sen. Sec. School, Chandigarh. She attended St. Xavier's College in Mumbai and it was here that she began a career in modeling. She decided to apply for a flight attendant job with Pan Am and once selected, she went to Miami for training. As a flight purser, Bhanot oversaw the flight attendants, and ensured the comfort and safety of the passengers. If there is a disturbance, the purser acts as the intermediary between the cockpit and remaining cabin crew members. The purser is ultimately second in command to the pilots and is usually the only one allowed to make on board announcements. Thus, since the pilots were no longer aboard the plane, Bhanot as the most senior cabin crew member remaining aboard, took charge. After a tense 17 hours, the hijackers opened fire and set off explosives.

During the ensuing panic, "...the terrorists shot and killed an American citizen, heaved his body out of the plane's door onto the tarmac, and threatened to kill another passenger every ten minutes if their demands were not met. As the aircraft's power failed and the lights went out, the hijackers recited a martyrdom prayer, opened fire on the passengers with automatic weapons at point blank range, and threw hand grenades into the tightly packed group. In addition to the 20 passengers and crew who were killed, many more were severely maimed, blinded, or disfigured by bullets, grenades, and shrapnel."

In the subsequent chaos, Bhanot opened one of the doors, flung open an emergency chute and assisted passengers from the plane. In addition, she had secretly hidden instructions inside pages of a magazine for a passenger who was next to an emergency exit so he could open the exit. Though she could have escaped first, she let the passengers escape and was shielding three children from a hail of bullets when she was shot and killed. 

One of the children, whose life she saved, is a now a captain for a major airline and has stated that Bhanot has been his inspiration and he owes every day of his life to her. 

Dr. Kishore Murthy, a survivor from the ill-fated flight recalled Neerja's last few minutes of the battle.

I was on my way to the US to attend an international conference. We were to take a Pan Am Mumbai-Frankfurt-New York flight. It came as a surprise to us at Bombay airport when we were told the flight would first land at the Karachi International Airport and then proceed to Frankfurt. Prior to our departure, we had heard that all airports in Pakistan and India were on high alert as the Americans had bombed (Libyan ruler Colonel Muammar) Gaddafi’s palace (in retaliation for the Libyan involvement in the bombing of a Pan Am flight, which crashed at Lockerbie, Soctland).

After the hijacking "[t]he five hijackers were convicted by the Pakistani courts for their roles in the attack. The leader of the hijackers on the plane, Zaid Safarini, was captured by the FBI when he was released from prison in Pakistan, and was brought to the United States for trial. On December 16, 2003, Safarini pled guilty in Washington, D.C. federal district court and was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences plus 25 years, which he is serving in a Colorado federal prison." Against the wishes of India and the United States the men's sentences were commuted from death to life in prison. In January 2008, four of the hijackers were reportedly released from Pakistani custody." They are now on the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists list.

Raja Murthy of Asia Times notes that "even as she was dying, Neerja Bhanot was saving lives." Over 350 people who survived owe their lives to her heroism.

After her death, her parents established the Neerja Bhanot award which "is an award of recognition conferred up to once a year by the the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust in India to a woman of that country subjected to social injustice, who faces the situation with grit and determination and extends help to other women in similar distress."

The names of the unsung heroes need to be etched into our subconscious while the names of the evil ones need to be blotted out. But more importantly, we must vow not to accede to the demands of the malevolent or else we diminish the memory of the brave.

Eileen can be reached at middlemarch18@gmail.com

I am disgusted by constantly seeing pictures of the San Bernardino murderers continually splashed across newspapers and on the internet. They represent the worst of humankind and deserve no visual recognition. They are the dregs of mankind and deserving of nothing but our revulsion and determination to stop their kind from promoting the murderous rampage seen everywhere in the world. 

They stand in stark contrast to a woman who would be 53 years old today had she not been gunned down by the same perverted and murderous motives as the jihadist terrorists. Her name is Neerja Bhanot and here is her picture.

Neerja Bhanot

Bhanot was the senior flight purser on Pan Am Flight 73 flying from Mumbai to the United States when it was hijacked by armed men on September 5, 1986 at the Karachi airport in Pakistan. There were 361 passengers and 19 crew members. Because of her quick thinking, Bhanot alerted the cockpit crew who escaped from an overhead hatch in the cockpit so that the aircraft could not be forcibly flown. The three-member American pilot, co-pilot, and flight engineer were following protocol procedures. 

The Palestinian hijackers were part of the terrorist Abu Nidal Organization that was backed by Libya. Conflicting reports indicate that the terrorists "were planning to use the hijacked plane to pick up Palestinian prisoners in both Cyprus and Israel. However, in 2006, surviving hostage Michael Thexton published a book in which he claimed he had heard the hijackers intended to crash the plane into a target in Israel (in the manner of 9/11).

Without the pilots, the aircraft would remain stationary. The hijackers then demanded that Bhanot and the other attendants collect passports so that Americans could be identified and murdered. Bhanot instructed the other flight attendants to hide the American passports and, as a result of this action, saved the lives of the Americans on board. Some of the passports were shoved under seats and the rest thrown down a rubbish chute.

In fact, "the hijacking of Pan Am Flight 73 was one of the most brutal international terrorist attacks to occur in the 1980s." One can only imagine the tension and fear aboard this plane and it is graphically portrayed in the movie titled Neerja which was released on February 19, 2016 as a joint venture film between Twenty-First Century Fox and Star India. As a biopic film, it dramatizes the 17 hours wherein Neerja Bhanot displayed incredible courage and grace under pressure as various governments and police forces dithered and terrorists murdered.

Born in Chandigarh, India, Bhanot received her schooling at Sacred Heart Sen. Sec. School, Chandigarh. She attended St. Xavier's College in Mumbai and it was here that she began a career in modeling. She decided to apply for a flight attendant job with Pan Am and once selected, she went to Miami for training. As a flight purser, Bhanot oversaw the flight attendants, and ensured the comfort and safety of the passengers. If there is a disturbance, the purser acts as the intermediary between the cockpit and remaining cabin crew members. The purser is ultimately second in command to the pilots and is usually the only one allowed to make on board announcements. Thus, since the pilots were no longer aboard the plane, Bhanot as the most senior cabin crew member remaining aboard, took charge. After a tense 17 hours, the hijackers opened fire and set off explosives.

During the ensuing panic, "...the terrorists shot and killed an American citizen, heaved his body out of the plane's door onto the tarmac, and threatened to kill another passenger every ten minutes if their demands were not met. As the aircraft's power failed and the lights went out, the hijackers recited a martyrdom prayer, opened fire on the passengers with automatic weapons at point blank range, and threw hand grenades into the tightly packed group. In addition to the 20 passengers and crew who were killed, many more were severely maimed, blinded, or disfigured by bullets, grenades, and shrapnel."

In the subsequent chaos, Bhanot opened one of the doors, flung open an emergency chute and assisted passengers from the plane. In addition, she had secretly hidden instructions inside pages of a magazine for a passenger who was next to an emergency exit so he could open the exit. Though she could have escaped first, she let the passengers escape and was shielding three children from a hail of bullets when she was shot and killed. 

One of the children, whose life she saved, is a now a captain for a major airline and has stated that Bhanot has been his inspiration and he owes every day of his life to her. 

Dr. Kishore Murthy, a survivor from the ill-fated flight recalled Neerja's last few minutes of the battle.

I was on my way to the US to attend an international conference. We were to take a Pan Am Mumbai-Frankfurt-New York flight. It came as a surprise to us at Bombay airport when we were told the flight would first land at the Karachi International Airport and then proceed to Frankfurt. Prior to our departure, we had heard that all airports in Pakistan and India were on high alert as the Americans had bombed (Libyan ruler Colonel Muammar) Gaddafi’s palace (in retaliation for the Libyan involvement in the bombing of a Pan Am flight, which crashed at Lockerbie, Soctland).

After the hijacking "[t]he five hijackers were convicted by the Pakistani courts for their roles in the attack. The leader of the hijackers on the plane, Zaid Safarini, was captured by the FBI when he was released from prison in Pakistan, and was brought to the United States for trial. On December 16, 2003, Safarini pled guilty in Washington, D.C. federal district court and was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences plus 25 years, which he is serving in a Colorado federal prison." Against the wishes of India and the United States the men's sentences were commuted from death to life in prison. In January 2008, four of the hijackers were reportedly released from Pakistani custody." They are now on the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists list.

Raja Murthy of Asia Times notes that "even as she was dying, Neerja Bhanot was saving lives." Over 350 people who survived owe their lives to her heroism.

After her death, her parents established the Neerja Bhanot award which "is an award of recognition conferred up to once a year by the the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust in India to a woman of that country subjected to social injustice, who faces the situation with grit and determination and extends help to other women in similar distress."

The names of the unsung heroes need to be etched into our subconscious while the names of the evil ones need to be blotted out. But more importantly, we must vow not to accede to the demands of the malevolent or else we diminish the memory of the brave.

Eileen can be reached at middlemarch18@gmail.com