I saw her getting shot. She was shot in the head, point blank. Sitting in the sixth row from the front, I saw her during her last moments,” said Dr Kishore Murthy, recalling the fearless Neerja Bhanot. A survivor of 1986 Pan Am hijack, Murthy shuddered as the dreadful moment flashed before his eyes. Though Neerja couldn’t make it herself, the flight attendant’s bravery saved most of the passengers.
The Pan Am Flight 73 on its way from Mumbai to New York via Karachi and Frankfurt was hijacked on September 5, 1986. Four terrorists in the guise of airport security staff entered the aircraft in Karachi. Twenty of the 380 flyers were killed. Of the 13 passengers from Karnataka, two died and four were injured. The siege ended when the hijackers opened fire on the captives who fled through the emergency exit. Neerja, who was shot by the leader of the terrorist group, is said to have played a pivotal role in the survival of many.
With Neerja’s biopic set to hit the screens on Friday, TOI spoke to two citizens of Bengaluru – Dr Murthy, then 31, who was in the flight and his wife Dr Veena Bharathi, who has worked closely with Neerja’s family to document her life. The duo has been in touch with producer Atul Kasbekar for the movie Neerja.
“Neerja was absolutely calm and efficient through the horrific episode. She was the first one to alert the captain, the co-pilot and first officers about a possible hijack and it was on her instruction they made their way out from the cockpit, ensuring that the plane could not take off. She was a true global citizen and did not discriminate between Indians and Americans. I remember she and another flight attendant helped us out of the exit door when one of the terrorists was targeting us. There was constant firing of rounds. The auxiliary power unit had failed and the terrorists feared a commando attack. Hence, they started firing indiscriminately,” recalled Dr Murthy, now 60 and a hospital management expert with St John’s Hospital.
Dr Murthy was heading to New York to present a paper on ‘Rheumatic heart disease and hypertension among pediatric patients aged below eight’.
With Neerja’s story being adapted into a movie, a lot has been written and circulated about her life and the hijack on various social media platforms. Dr Veena Bharati has been documenting Neerja’s life since 1996 with her father Harish Bhanot and her brother Aneesh as her sources. “She was very caring towards all the passengers, especially the elderly and children. I didn’t see her lose her cool for even a moment. She was very efficient during the crisis,” said Dr Murthy.
“I saw some posts on Facebook saying she died before her 23rd birthday but the truth is Neerja was already 23 and was shot two days before her 24th birthday. She had asked her parents to organize a small family get-together for her birthday but unfortunately they had to collect her coffin a day after her 24th birthday,” said Dr Veena.
Negating the false information about Neerja being killed when she was shielding a group of children, Dr Veena said, “She was guiding the passengers to the emergency exit. That is when the terrorists were firing constantly fearing a commando attack. They saw Neerja relentlessly trying to help the passengers out and that is when they caught her by her ponytail and shot her point blank.”
A Woman of substance: Award recipient
V Gowramma (53), received the Neerja Bhanot Award in 1999 for her path-breaking work in getting justice for victims of dowry harassment as an activist with Vimochana, a women’s organization. Gowramma had a played a major role in brings many dowry deaths to light, which had been closed as kitchen accidents and stove burst cases, after conducting investigation under section 174 of the Code of Criminal Procedures.
“I was overwhelmed with happiness when I got to know that I will be a recipient of the Neerja Bhanot award. They recognized my sincerity and hard work. I don’t have words to describe Neerja. She is a true hero. There are few women of substance like her,” Gowramma said. The Neerja Bhanot Award is an award of recognition conferred once a year by the The Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust to a woman who stands up to social injustice with grit and determination and extends help to other women. Gowramma is now the programme in-charge of the state police gender sensitization wing. Gowramma herself was a victim of domestic abuse and had knocked on the doors of Vimochana seeking help, before she decided to fight for women like her.