This story is a young model who turned into the flight attendant who laid down her life to save 359 people. Neerja Bahonot was an incredibly strong woman who was brave, full of life, beautiful, passionate, dedicated who sacrificed her life for the protection of passengers on Pan Am Flight that was hijacked on September 5, 1986. “HERO” this is the right word for Neerja, who overcome through domestic abuse and turned up as a savior of 359 people. With her work, she became the first female and youngest recipient of Ashok Chakra Award.
Early Life and Work:
Neerja was born in Chandigarh to Harish Bhanot and Rama Bhanot on 7th September 1962. She quickly became the center of entire family’s affection and was called as Lado. She did her schooling from Chandigarh’s Sacred Heart Scholl till 6th Standard, later her family moved to Mumbai. She finished her schooling at Bombay Scottish School and graduated from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. As a person, Neerja was a no problem child from childhood and also a loyal friend who always turned up with a solution.
At an early age of 18 years, Neerja started her career when a photographer approached her for modeling. Just after the completion of modeling assignment Panville, a popular retail store offered another modeling job. From there Neerja became the face of several ad campaigns and modeling assignments. She was featured in ads of Binaca, Vaporex, Krack Jack Biscuits, Charmis Cold Creme, Benzer etc. She also appeared on the cover page of Manorama.
As Neerja was growing in her professional career, her family found a perfect match for her with a man who is based in UAE. In March 1985, she got married to Sharjah and this was the worse phase of Neerja’s life. Within 2 months of marriage, a girl who was free like a bird got caged. She faced emotional, physical and mental abuse, starved for money. Her marriage came to an end when we returned to Mumbai for a modeling assignment. After ending her abusive married life, Neerja decided to prove herself. She applied for flight Attendant in Pam Am.
Neerja: Flight Attendant
Neerja applied as a flight attendant for Pan Am and she was the selected among 10000 applications. She went to Miami for 6 to 8 months for training and within a year with her hard work and peer reviews she was sent to London to be trained for, Purser – Senior Most Cabin Manager. This was the training that helped Neerja, to save the life of people in Pan Am Flight Hijack.
Pan Am: The Hijack
Neerja was just 25 hours away from her 24th Birthday when she left her home for the last time to attend her cabin crew duty. The flight arrived from Mumbai, and everything was fine and the plane landed at Karachi. Some passengers took off at Karachi and this was the place where four armed men dressed in airport security clothes entered the aircraft. And suddenly there were screams all around, to scare the passengers they killed a person, Rakesh Kumar and threw him out of the plane. Neerja without any delay informed the captain and crew members to flee the aircraft. The captain, co-pilot, and crew, Terrorists used Neerja to communicate with the airline. Terrorists were scaring passengers by shouting, screaming and continuous air firing. Neerja and other crew members did their best to calm down the passengers and protect the Americans (who were targeted) by hiding their passports. After 17 hours of the hijack, the real nightmare started when fuel in flight ran out and resulted in darkness. Neerja and one of the passenger opened two emergency doors allowing many passengers to escape. While helping three kids to slide down the emergency exit, she was shot in the head. She died before any medical assistance reaches her.
Neerja has the choice to save her life but she chooses to save others. Heroes are not born with some other breeds and Neerja is a good example for everyone “ she is an ordinary girl with extraordinary spirit”. She could have returned home on her birthday with her family collected her coffin on Sept 7 and she was cremated the following day leaving everyone with tears in eyes and respect in the heart.
For her bravery, Government of India awarded Bhanot with Ashoka Chakra Award, India’s highest gallantry award for bravery. In 2004, Indian Postal Service released a stamp of Neerja. Bhanot house of Austery was named in her honor. The Civil Aviation Ministry of India conferred an honor on 18th Feb 2010. She was awarded Bharat Gaurav Award on 2nd July 2016 at House of Commons.
So, here is the story of our very own, brave, courageous young Indian girl who left every Indian with pride and inspiration. Her life and heroism were shone in the Biopic Neerja that was released in 2016.