How Accurate Are Claims About Flight Attendant Neerja Bhanot and the ’86 Pan Am Hijacking?

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Sometimes, Snopes readers locate previous tales that require us to revisit key moments of historical past. One such story was of the brave actions of Neerja Bhanot, an Indian flight attendant on Pan Am flight 73, which was hijacked in 1986 by Palestinian militants on its method to the United States whereas on a stopover in Karachi, Pakistan.

Many of our readers shared social media posts, and queries, asking us to element a few of the principal occasions of the hijacking, together with Bhanot’s demise from a gunshot wound.

What a courageous woman from nextfuckinglevel

One reader requested us to verify the following:

When radical Islamic terrorists hijacked her A/C in Karachi, Pakistan she knowledgeable the pilots (who used their escape hatch to runaway) and saved each the passengers/remaining crew calm. When the terrorists demanded to know who the Americans have been on the flight so they might execute them she gathered all the passports and hid the ones belonging to Americans underneath seat cushions. The terrorists confused and unable to find out the nationwide origins of the passengers didn’t execute anybody. When Pakistani police raided the airplane she was capable of practically singlehandedly evacuate all the passengers as the firefight ensued. She being one among the final folks on board did a final examine and discovered three kids nonetheless hiding. As she led the kids to security the surviving terrorists noticed the kids and opened hearth on them. Neerja jumped in the method of the bullets and was mortally wounded. She was capable of evac the kids to security earlier than dying from her wounds. Neerja was awarded the Ashok Chakra Award by India, the highest peacetime gallantry award doable. She was the youngest and first civilian to ever be awarded this honor.

Through testimonies from the flight crew and passengers throughout the sentencing of one among the hijackers, and interviews achieved by the BBC, we have been capable of collect key details from that fateful day. In 2004, Zayad al Safarini, a Jordanian hijacker who was a part of the assault, was sentenced by a U.S. district choose to 160 years in jail. At the listening to for his sentencing, a lot of passengers, flight attendants, and Bhanot’s brother, got here ahead to recount the occasions of the hijacking. The full transcript of their testimonies might be learn here.

Did Bhanot Gather and Hide American Passports?

The Palestinian militants who hijacked the plane have been affiliated with the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO), which was against U.S. and Israeli insurance policies in the Middle East, and was described as a “secular international terrorist organization.” When the hijackers boarded the airplane, they started attempting to determine any Americans on board. A 2016 BBC report included interviews with the surviving flight attendants, described the scene:

Sunshine, Madhvi Bahuguna and one other flight attendant started gathering passports, quietly avoiding gathering any that have been American. They then went via the baggage of passports that they had collected, secretly sifting out any remaining American ones and tucking them underneath their seats or concealing them of their clothes.

Mike Thexton, a passenger on the airplane, describes the act in his ebook What Happened to The Hippy Man? as “extremely brave, selfless and clever”. “I may be biased but I feel that day proved that the flight attendants on board were some of the best in the industry.”

Descriptions from passengers and members of the family from the sentencing of Safarini detailed the second that flight attendants have been advised to assemble passports, and the methods by which they tried to guard the Americans amongst them. Aneesh Bhanot, Neerja’s brother, who was not on the airplane as these occasions occurred, described this effort as one carried out by all the flight attendants collectively:

Neerja was an Indian citizen. All the different flight attendants have been additionally Indian residents. Mr. Safarini and his gang have been concentrating on Americans, as was very apparent from the passenger calls which you heard in a while. Neerja and all the different attendants knew this. That is why once they requested them to get the passports of all the passengers, they hid the American passports on the airplane.

He additionally cited the testimony of one other passenger that was printed in the Cincinnati Enquirer in September 1986. A clipping of that paper is accessible under (by which Bhanot is known as Neerja Mishra):

Michael John Thexton, a British passenger, recounted the following:

Then got here the name for passports, and I ought to have ignored it. But I felt that I needed to obey orders. So I took out my passport and I handed it in, nonetheless pondering that the Americans could be in entrance of us, not reckoning the ingenuity and the extraordinary bravery of the stewardess who was making the assortment in discarding American passports that had a white face. I suppose the British have been [the] third alternative for the terrorists. And after the Americans and the Israelis, mine was the solely one among a small handful of British passports with a white face in that pile. I feel possibly six or seven, one thing of that kind. So the name came visiting the public handle for passenger Michael John to return ahead, then Michael John Thexton, and I knew that they needed to shoot me.

Darrell Pieper, an American passenger, credited flight attendant Sunshine Vesuwala for safeguarding his identification. In his testimony, he stated, “Sunshine hid my passport when she realized the hijackers are looking for Americans. I’m grateful to her for her quick thinking and action, which again saved my life.”

Gregg Maisel, the lawyer representing the U.S. authorities, said, “the flight attendants, risking their own lives, deliberately refused to accept United States passports from some passengers and hid several United States passports under seat cushions.”

Given that Bhanot performed an enormous function in defending the American passengers by hiding their passports, however was not the solely flight attendant doing this, we price this a part of the declare as principally true.

Did Bhanot Single Handedly Evacuate Passengers?

In this occasion, whilst Bhanot confirmed outstanding bravery in getting passengers to security, she was not alone on this effort. According to Maisel, passengers escaped after Bhanot and others have been capable of open up some exits:

As the bullets and grenades flew, Neerja Bhanot, in addition to different flight attendants and passengers, heroically managed to pressure open two exits in the financial system part. The opening of the rear exit triggered inflation of the emergency slide, however the opening of the exit over the wing didn’t set off the inflation of a second emergency slide. People clamored to succeed in each exits fearful that the hijackers would resume the assault.
[…]
This diagram illustrates the efforts of surviving hostages to flee the plane utilizing the emergency slide and climbing onto the wing of the airplane. While the slide was a safer escape route, the sheer variety of folks making an attempt to depart the airplane via this exit at night time resulted in further accidents to some who have been unable to exit shortly sufficient to keep away from being crushed by others behind them.
[…]
At the route of a number of flight attendants, different passengers reentered the airplane climbing over the wounded and the lifeless and used the rear exit the place the slide was inflated to the safer escape route.

Aneesh Bhanot additionally recounted an article written by a Pakistani passenger:

There’s one other passenger from Pakistan, a gentleman known as Hussein, who had written an article in a newspaper known as the Star of Pakistan. And he wrote once more that claims as the lights went out at 10:00 p.m. we was herded with the passengers and the taking pictures began. From nowhere, his savior, Neerja, and I’m positive different flight attendants additionally did the identical factor, had the presence and the nerve to steer via the pandemonium to steer the passengers the place to go. Neerja, by sheer zest, it appears, single-handedly opened the chute. Her favourite phrases to him and different passengers have been, get out, run.

In this occasion, since Bhanot appeared to have taken the lead in serving to passengers escape and was additionally aided by different crew and passengers, we price this a part of the declare as a combination, on condition that she didn’t do that alone.

Was Bhanot Shot Dead While Shielding Three Children?

Bhanot’s demise was described via totally different accounts, primarily based on data gathered in the aftermath of the assault. Some experiences stated she was defending three kids, whereas flight attendants described her being shot throughout the escape.

Jennifer Levy, one other lawyer representing the U.S. authorities, described Bhanot’s ultimate moments:

When the lights went out simply earlier than the ultimate assault, Ms. Bhanot ran for the emergency door and activated the inflatable chute. Instead of escaping as one among the first off the plane, she remained on board to assist others out of the airplane. She was shot in the ultimate assault. Although she was taken off the airplane alive by her fellow flight attendants, she died shortly afterwards of large bleeding.

Viraf Daroga, Pan Am’s director in Pakistan, described how Bhanot was introduced down from the plane via the emergency chute:

Those who have been injured have been picked up as they got here down the chute, put in ambulances that got here dashing to the plane, and have been pushed off to numerous hospitals. Neerja, the senior purser, was introduced down by her colleagues and was taken to the hospital. She died in the hospital in the arms of one among my employees.

Aneesh Bhanot’s testimony described how Bhanot was certainly defending three kids when she was shot and killed:

Neerja may have been the first one to flee from the plane as she opened the emergency door, but she selected not to do this. Instead, she acquired the passengers out and gave her personal life, as we’re advised, whereas shielding three young children from gunfire. Her actions in all probability saved a whole bunch of lives.

The Pan Am Historical Foundation additionally described her demise by saying “As the hijackers opened fire on passengers and crew, Neerja Bhanot lost her life shielding three children from bullets.”

Since experiences differ on what occurred throughout Bhanot’s ultimate moments, and some particulars stay unsure, we price the total reality of this declare as  “Mixture.” But there isn’t any doubting that her actions, in addition to the actions of different flight attendants and crew, saved many lives. Indeed, after her demise, she was posthumously awarded the Ashok Chakra award, which is India’s highest civilian ornament for bravery. 

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