I have often written about trauma to the worldwide airline community, and more specifically about the trauma that employees of Pan American World Airways faced during the last 20 years of their beloved airline's existence. I'd like to recommend a new movie out on limited release - Neerja -that tells the extraordinary true story of one of our Pan Am heroines who, along with her fellow flight attendants, saved 359 passengers during an aborted hijack attempt in Karachi in September of 1986. If you can't see it now, hopefully it'll be out on a DVD at a later time.
Pan Am Flight 73 was in transit at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi on its regularly scheduled flight from Bombay/ Karachi/Frankfurt/New York when four armed Palestinian terrorists, dressed as security guards, from the Abu Nidal Organization (Libya) stormed and took control of the 747 with close to 400 passengers on board.
In this year of 1986, the Israel-Palestine conflict was still raging 14 years after the 1972 Munich massacres: Pan Am had become the main target of terrorism worldwide in the early 1970's as the flag-carrying symbol of America. There are two different theories about what the terrorists wanted: one was that they wanted to fly to Cyprus and Israel to pick up their jailed comrades; the second was that this time the terrorists wanted to use a Pan Am plane as a weapon to fly into a building in Israel. In either case, they were determined to carry out murder and destruction.
At extraordinary risk to her own life, quick-thinking Neerja Bhanot called the cockpit with the code for "Hijack!" as the terrorists violently forced their way onto the plane, thus enabling the pilots to escape through the cockpit's overhead hatch. Her actions effectively grounded the aircraft. To many, this might seem strange that the pilots abandoned the airplane, but in reality, this is standard emergency protocol to prevent greater loss of life.
However, this left Neerja, a brand new flight attendant of less than a year, on her very first flight as Senior Purser, in command. It was two days before her 23rd birthday when, realizing that the pilots left, she bravely stepped up and announced to the terrorists, "now that the pilots have gone, I am the commander."
No one could have imagined the horror unfolding on this airplane on the tarmac in Karachi. One of the terrorists' first acts of atrocity was to murder an American passenger of Indian descent on board, shooting him in the head and dumping him out of the plane. This extreme violence alerted Neerja to the fact that the terrorists were intending to use the Americans onboard as pawns in their negotiations with the Pakistanis on the ground at the airport. Realizing that they needed to enlist the help of the flight attendants now that the pilots were gone, the terrorists ordered Neerja and her crew to collect all 379 passports on board.
What Neerja and her crew did next was an almost unfathomable feat of courage. Under directions from Neerja, the crew collected all the passports, but, unbelievably, with guns pointed at their heads, either hid or put the 41 Americans' passports down a garbage chute. What followed was 17 hours of terror and violence that would have been total chaos if the crew under Neerja's leadership had not done their utmost to keep the passengers from a total state of panic.
The film beautifully recounts the way Neerja kept up a constant state of calm in front of the passengers, reassuring and comforting everyone, especially the elderly and children. The flight attendants went about their duties of giving the passengers what food and drinks were available. Neerja maintained her calming smile and reassuring whispered words throughout the ordeal.
But the audience sees the moments of terror that Neerja experiences when the eyes of others are not on her, and we are skillfully introduced through flashbacks to Neerja's brief two-month arranged marriage (in the Hindu tradition) into a family in the Gulf the year before. Once she was married, the new family was extremely abusive to her because even though they agreed to no dowry, the father and husband humiliated Neerja constantly over the issue. Once Neerja's very loving and supportive family knew of the real situation, they welcomed her home with open arms.
Neerja had been a well-known model in India before her marriage and employment with Pan Am, and her extraordinary beauty only complimented what everyone described as such a warm, glowing, vital, and obviously loving personality. Always a natural leader, Neerja (called "Lado"- "loved one") was adored by her family and two brothers, poignantly played by the actors in the movie.
As the auxilliary lights in the airplane began to fail after 17 hours, the terrorists panicked and tossed a grenade and began emptying all their ammunition toward the passengers. Neerja and the crew dove for the emergency exits, opening the doors and pushing people onto the slides. Amazingly, only 20 people were killed and 100 injured, in what could have been a worse massacre. The Pakistani army then boarded the aircraft, but not in time to save Neerja, who was shot several times, trying to save three children. (Interestingly, one of those children who was seven years old at the time, grew up to be a pilot who says that every day of his life he thanks Neerja for saving him.) Despite her wounds, Neerja stayed at her post at her emergency exit until two crew members came back to the airplane to find her and help her down the slide. She limped on her own to the ambulance, but died on the way to the hospital. The funeral scene was magnificent in its simplicity.
One of the reasons I love this movie is that the writers didn't make Neerja into a superhero. Sonam Kapoor, in the role of Neerja Bhanot, portrays her as an emotionally alive, tenacious person who was put into an unimaginable terrifying situation. Yet, she found the courage within herself to stand up to these murderous villains to defend what was right and to help those who needed assistance - because that's how her parents raised her and also who she was as a human being. It was her duty to protect her passengers. The audience can feel that she's authentic, and her actions make her a hero. With a few exceptions, the story as told in the film is all true.
Neerja is an Indian movie with English subtitles, and because the movie is so emotionally riveting, I didn't find the subtitles to be distracting at all. The movie has been banned in Pakistan. The performances by the actors playing Neerja's mother (Shabana Azmi) and father (Yogendra Tiku) are heartbreakingly poignant, and the speech by Neerja's mother at the end of the film is flawless in its passionate mother's love and shattering grief. The portrayal of the terrorists as they are emotionally falling apart and turning against each other feels raw and accurate.
Neerja Bhanot was awarded the Ashok Chakra, India's highest peacetime gallantry award, and she is well- known in India for her heroism. For a flight attendant to be awarded such a high honor is a first and is truly deserved. Flight attendants have often acted courageously, but unfortunately, many airline passengers are either unaware - or perhaps would like to be in denial about - the crucial role that flight attendants play in airline disasters. After all, they are the first line of defense in the case of airline terrorism or crashes. If you have any interest in this subject, I recommend an excellent book by Valerie Lester (1995) titled Fasten Your Sea Belts! History and Heroism in the Pan Am Cabin.
My personal experience in seeing this movie was cathartic for me. I was with a group of former Pan Am flight attendants - my Pan Am family - and we were experiencing a very traumatic event in our beloved company's history. But this time, we were living it together. At times, it was very hard to watch. There we were, imagining ourselves inside this Pan Am 747, seeing the uniforms and feeling the Pan Am ambience, but knowing how the story turns out. And also knowing that only two years after this event, Libyan terrorists downed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which turned out to be the nail in the coffin for the company we all loved. Yet we had the deep consolation of being together.
Next to me watching the movie was my friend,Wendy Knecht, who wrote Life, Love, and a Hijacking: My Pan Am Memoir (2014). Wendy had trained and supervised Neerja, as well as having attended her funeral in Bombay. Wendy remains in contact with Neerja's brother who has just published a book in India, The Neerja I Knew (Aneesh Bhanot). Watching the movie was an "out-of-body experience" for Wendy, surreal not only because she knew her, but also because the movie brought alive such poignant memories from 30 years ago.
Sitting together in that dimly-lit theater, I was so aware of - and grateful for - the deep emotional bond we former Pan Am employees share. We were part of the incredible Pan Am family that was full of triumphs and trauma, and as "siblings in the same dark night" (See Counting My People), we are not alone.