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Character is not built, it is revealed.
We are surrounded by both cowards and heroes whose reveal is just waiting on fate’s whim.
The cowards and heroes often are not straight from central casting … or are they?
For those keeping track, the “Global War on Terror” is still very much going on. It also predates 9/11/01.
Like the tide, it rises and falls and sometimes slacks … but it never stops. It has been a long war - and will be.
Let me introduce you to one of the great foot soldiers of this war for the good guys you may not be familiar with. Every American should know her, but we don’t. Heck, she’s not even American.
If you are an American and you have never heard of Neerja Bhanot and her fellow crewmembers of Pan Am Flight 73, that is to our collective great shame.
It’s been awhile, I’d like to visit with her again if for no other reason but to introduce her to all the new readers.
It was just before 06:00 and Pan Am Flight 73, on a stopover in Karachi from Mumbai, was scheduled to continue on to Frankfurt, en route to New York. There were 14 flight attendants on board, 12 of whom were preparing for take-off.
Outside, four gunmen had sped on to the tarmac in a van disguised as airport security. The men entered the Boeing 747, firing shots into the air.
Meanwhile, inside the plane, 29-year-old American passenger Rajesh Kumar was pulled out of his seat and made to kneel in front of one of the open doors, with a gun to his head. When no pilot materialised within the hour, Mr Kumar was shot and kicked out of the plane.
"This changed everything. It showed they were ruthless killers," says Sunshine.
Looking for Americans
Around four hours into the siege, the hijackers began trying to identify the Americans on board. The Abu Nidal Organisation (ANO), which they were members of, was opposed to US and Israeli policy in the Middle East.
Sunshine, Madhvi Bahuguna and another flight attendant began collecting passports, quietly avoiding collecting any that were American.
They then went through the bags of passports they had collected, secretly sifting out any remaining American ones and tucking them under their seats or concealing them in their clothing.
Mike Thexton, a passenger on the plane, describes the act in his book 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."
Having failed to find an American, the militants settled for someone British. Mike was made to sit on the floor, and like the other passengers, keep his hands above his head. Aside from one sharp kick, he says, he was not physically mistreated and eventually escaped with others in the later chaos.
Although the hijackers had closed the doors and lowered the shutters earlier, the air conditioning and lights had been on. As evening set in, the on-board power supply started to dwindle, the lights got dimmer and the cool air stopped circulating.
Moments until darkness
Meherjee, the mechanic, told Safarini that the emergency power would last 15 minutes or so before the aircraft would be plunged into darkness. Sherene says she knew then that time was running out.
When the lights did go out, all the flight attendants and passengers were in the middle section of the cabin, several seated on the ground in the aisles and near the doors. The gunmen positioned themselves on either side of the aisles.
"They had lost patience. They let out a war cry," says Sunshine, "and began firing into the crowd. There were huge streaks of light breaking the darkness. And screams."
Sherene saw that mechanic Meherjee had been killed.
In the chaos and darkness, at least three doors had been opened, though it is not clear by whom. The door nearest the wing had been opened in manual, which meant that the emergency slide did not deploy. It was a short jump to reach the wing of the plane. Many went for it. Nupoor and Madhvi slipped off the edge of the wing, fracturing bones as they hit the tarmac around 20 feet (6 metres) below.
Sunshine and Dilip were also on the wing, but in the darkness couldn't gauge the distance of the drop. They saw another door had been deployed in automatic, which meant that the emergency slide was inflated.
They climbed back in through the door they had come through, and along with Sherene and another colleague, assisted and redirected passengers to the inflated slide.
Massey had already exited down the slide just moments earlier, taking three unaccompanied children with him.
Then, when all the passengers were off the wing, the crew did something remarkable. Not hearing any more gunfire, but not knowing where the gunmen were, they went back into the dark plane to look for survivors.
That's when Sunshine saw Neerja.
Neerja had been shot in her hip and was bleeding heavily, but was conscious. Sunshine called Dilip over to help, and the two carried Neerja to the emergency slide. They pushed her down first, then jumped out themselves.
She died later of her wounds.
I'm not all that impressed with the BBC coverage, so I would offer that you take a moment to read here.
Equally unimpressive - but not unexpected, is what Pakistand did. Pakistan has been, well, Pakistan about all this.
- The Pakistani authorities released the leader of the hijackers, Zaid Hassan Abd Latif Safarini, in September 2001, but he was quickly recaptured by the US.
- Safarini is 12 years into his 160-year sentence in a US prison. The other hijackers were released from their Pakistani jail in 2008, against the wishes of India and the US
After I first posted this in April 2016 there was a movie made in India about Neerja. Here’s the trailer;