Neerja was the senior flight purser on the ill-fated Pan Am Flight 73 flying from Mumbai to USA, which was hijacked by four armed men on 5 September 1986 at Karachi airport in Pakistan. The aircraft was carrying 376 passengers and 19 crew members. The terrorists wanted to fly to Cyprusand wanted to release some of their team members from jail. After the terrorists boarded the plane, Neerja alerted the cockpit crew. As the plane was on the tarmac, the three-member American cockpit crew of pilot, co-pilot and the flight engineer evacuated the aircraft through an overhead hatch in the cockpit per their training so that the aircraft could not be forcibly flown. Neerja, being the most senior cabin crew member remaining aboard, took charge.
The hijackers, Palestinians, were part of the terrorist Abu Nidal Organization and were backed byLibya. The terrorists then instructed Neerja to collect the passports of all the passengers so that they could identify the Americans. The terrorists wanted to put pressure on America by identifying and threatening the Americans on the aircraft. Neerja and the other attendants under her charge hid the passports of the 41 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 citizens.
After 17 hours, the hijackers opened fire and set off explosives. Neerja opened one of the doors, flung open an emergency chute, and assisted passengers from the aircraft. She could have been the first to jump out when she opened the door but she decided not to and was shot while shielding three children from a hail of bullets. From a total of 41 American passengers, only 2 were killed during firing. One of the children, then aged 7, is now a captain for a major airline and has stated that Neerja Bhanot has been his inspiration and he owes every day of his life to her. Neerja was recognized internationally as “the heroine of the hijack” and is the youngest recipient of the Ashok Chakra Award, India’s most prestigious gallantry award for bravery during peace time.
This incident happened just two days before her twenty-third birthday. She actually invited her family to a meet over for her 23rd birthday. This news came out in Times Of India by the Doctor who watched her get shot dead by the terrorists. Not only had she ensured the failure of the hijacking by preventing the plane from getting off the ground, she also saved the lives of hostages in those long hours of incarceration.