Neerja Bhanot

The moral high-ground can be a wildly vicious place, especially when we have no actualized skin in the game.

Have you ever noticed anything like that? I have, and it sometimes makes me think of who I actually am. Not just what I think, but what I do. Not just my beliefs about which practice is good and which practice is bad, but whether or not I truly, physically interact with such decisions at all. Am I just bloviating? What would I do if it would significantly alter my quality of life?

Do you know of Neerja Bhanot? Her life truly causes me to reflect on my own. Bhanot was the Senior Flight Purser on Pan Am Flight 73 flying from Mumbai to the United States, which was hijacked by four armed men on 5 September 1986 at Karachi airport in Pakistan. The aircraft was carrying 380 passengers and 13 crew members. Bhanot was able to alert the cockpit crew as soon as the hijackers boarded the plane, and as the plane was on the tarmac, the three-member cockpit crew of pilot, co-pilot and the flight engineer left the aircraft through an overhead hatch in the cockpit. As the senior-most cabin crew member, Bhanot took charge of the situation inside the plane.

The hijackers were targeting Americans and American assets. In the early minutes of the hijacking, they identified an Indian-American citizen, dragged him to the exit, shot him dead and threw his body onto the tarmac. The terrorists then instructed Bhanot to collect the passports of all the passengers so that they could identify the other Americans on board. She and the other attendants under her charge hid the passports of the remaining 43 Americans on board; some under a seat and the rest down a rubbish chute so that the hijackers could not differentiate between American and non-American passengers.

After 17 hours, the hijackers opened fire and set off explosives. Bhanot opened one of the airplane doors, and started helping the other passengers escape. If she wanted, like the other cabin crew on board, she could have been the first one to jump out and escape from the aircraft when she opened the door, but she decided not to and instead started helping the other passengers escape.

According to a surviving passenger, “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.”

She was shot as she covered three small children, who were about to be shot by the hijackers, with her own body. Out of a total of 44 American passengers, two were killed during the hijacking. A child on board, then aged seven, is now a captain for a major airline and has stated that Bhanot has been his inspiration, and that he owes every day of his life to her.

Neerja Bhanot showed herself to be a friend of the innocent and those who were to be oppressed and harmed. She didn’t even know them. I wonder if I would have done the same. It’s easy to take the moral high-ground, especially when you have no skin in the game. It’s a lot harder to be selfless unto death.

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. —John 15:13

With love, always,

-Luke

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