As “Neerja: Fear gave her courage” is all set to hit the theaters on 19th Feb, it takes us back to that fateful day when a valiant young lady, Neerja Bhanot, sacrificed her life in the bid to save 360 Pan Am passengers. She was just 23 when she thought not for the second time to save lives and when even the pilots called it quits rather shamelessly. Today we take a trip down the memory lane on the fearless soul to whom even the survivor owes his life (one of the children who Neerja shielded from bullets and is now a flight captain with one of the major airlines).

It was not the first time that Neerja showed courage in her life but at the tender age of 22 she had already shown balls enough to come out of a marriage within two months since she was being forced for dowry. She returned to her parents in Mumbai and then she applied for the job with Pan Am. Though she applied for the flight attendant, she was appointed as a purser eventually.

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It was a day before her 23rd birthday (5th Sep, 1986) Neerja boarded the Pan Am Flight 73 (Mumbai to USA) and was the senior purser on the flight. It was at the Karachi airport in Pakistan that the flight was hijacked by 4 heavily armed men who belonged to Abu Nidal Organization, a terrorist group backed by Libya.

Neerja rushed towards the cockpit to alert the crew as soon as she saw the terrorists boarding the same flight. But, before she could reach the crew she was grabbed by her ponytail by one of the terrorists. The plucky lady still managed to shout the confidential hijack code to the crew who, according to the official rules quickly moved out. In a way, they flee from the emergency situation leaving 400 passengers and 13 flight crew in the lurch.

Neerja, who was now the senior most crew member on the flight, was ordered by the hijackers to collect the passports of the American passengers. The sole intention of the hijackers was to terrorize the Americans on the flight. But, the godsend angel who was as if on a mission to save hundreds of lives along with her other crew members ensured to hide or trash the 41 American passports so that they could be saved from the terrorists.

Neerja, along with her other crew members continued to fight for the next 17 hours after which the enraged terrorists open fired and set explosives. As she would not give up on saving lives, she quickly opened the emergency exit, threw open the parachute and helped 360 passengers to escape. Neerja was martyred trying to shield three children from the random firing.

Had Neerja decided to jump out first and save her life that day, the 360 lives including the three children one of whom has grown to be the pilot of a major airline, would not be telling you her story today and how they owe their life to her. What Neerja did is beyond just bravery. In a world where everybody is busy riding a shotgun for their religion and prove their God is the greatest, she left a footprint with a simple lesson on humanity.

neerja-unseenHer brothers Akhil and Aneesh Bhanot, fondly remember their younger sister as the bully and a fearless lady, who probably only feared cockroaches. Neerja is the youngest recipient and the first civilian to receive the Ashok Chakra by the Indian Government. She had been also received many other awards by different countries that includes, Justice for Crimes Award: United States Attorney’s office for the District of Columbia, Special Courage award: US Govt. and Indian Civil Aviation Ministry’s Award, Flight Safety Foundation Heroism Award: USA, Tamgha-e-Insaaniyat: Pakistan.

You call her “The Heroine of the Hijack” as she is known internationally, or the insignia of benevolence, Neerja remains in our heart forever as a beautiful lady who had an equally beautiful heart that pulsated for humanity. So, as we await the release of the film on her life, “Neerja: Fear gave her courage”, we sincerely hope that Sonam Kapoor does justice to her role.


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