Neerja Bhanot was only 23-years-old when her life was tragically cut short. However the legacy she left behind not only makes her a hero, but posthumously she became the youngest recipient of India’s highest peacetime military award for bravery. Neerja was a flight attendant for Pan Am whose heroic action in the midst of a terrorist plot to hijack a plane saved at least 40 American lives.
On the September 5, 1986, Pan Am Flight 73 was hijacked on route to New York City via a stop in Frankfurt. It had just landed in Karachi from Mumbai around five in the morning. There were 360 passengers on board at the time, and an additional 20 crew members.
Terrorists from the Libyan-backed Abu Nidel Organization hijacked the plane, holding all of the passengers hostage and demanding to know who the Americans on board were.
Through some quick-thinking, Neerja was able to alert the cockpit crew and the American pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer were able to escape the aircraft. Neerja was also responsible for collecting and hiding the American passports from the hijackers so that it was impossible to identify them.
The passengers and crew were held hostage for a grueling 17 hours until the hijackers grew impatient and opened fire. 20 passengers were killed.
Neerja stayed at her post, helping passengers escape through an emergency door instead of saving herself.
Then, when almost all of the passengers had been evacuated, Neerja made the ultimate sacrifice. Three children were caught in the line of fire, unable to make it to the emergency door.
Neerja shielded them with her body so they could escape, becoming riddled with bullets in the process.
She would succumb to those wounds, but she lives on as a hero.
The hijackers were caught and sentenced to death in Pakistan, however that was later commuted to life in prison and eventually released.
On of the hijackers was eventually captured by FBI forces and put in prison. The others remain some of the FBI’s most wanted terrorists, and have hefty bounties on their heads.