Fact Check

Is the Story of Neerja Bhanot and the '86 Pan Am Hijacking True?

In 1986, Pan Am flight 73 was attacked in Karachi airport by hijackers linked to the Palestinian Abu Nidal Organization.

Published April 6, 2021

 (India Post, Government of India/Wikimedia Commons)
Image courtesy of India Post, Government of India/Wikimedia Commons
During the September 1986 hijacking of Pan Am flight 73, flight attendant Neerja Bhanot gathered American passports and hid them in order to protect the passengers, and single-handedly evacuated passengers. She died shielding three children from gunfire.
What's True

Neerja Bhanot played an important role in protecting passengers on Pan Am flight 73. Along with other flight attendants, she collected and hid American passports from the hijackers who were targeting American passengers. She and the other attendants opened emergency exits, enabling passengers to escape. According to some reports, she was shot while shielding three children from gunfire.

What's False

Bhanot, while playing a key role in protecting passengers, was not solely responsible for hiding passports and evacuating passengers. Other flight attendants also played important roles that day. Some accounts of her death did not detail her shielding the three children.

Sometimes, Snopes readers stumble on old stories that require us to revisit key moments of history. One such story was of the courageous actions of Neerja Bhanot, an Indian flight attendant on Pan Am flight 73, which was hijacked in 1986 by Palestinian militants on its way to the United States while on a stopover in Karachi, Pakistan.

Many of our readers shared social media posts, and queries, asking us to detail some of the main events of the hijacking, including Bhanot’s death from a gunshot wound.

One reader asked us to confirm the following:

When radical Islamic terrorists hijacked her A/C in Karachi, Pakistan she informed the pilots (who used their escape hatch to runaway) and kept both the passengers/remaining crew calm. When the terrorists demanded to know who the Americans were on the flight so they could execute them she gathered all the passports and hid the ones belonging to Americans under seat cushions. The terrorists confused and unable to determine the national origins of the passengers didn't execute anyone. When Pakistani police raided the plane she was able to nearly singlehandedly evacuate all the passengers as the firefight ensued. She being one of the last people on board did a last check and found three children still hiding. As she led the children to safety the surviving terrorists spotted the children and opened fire on them. Neerja jumped in the way of the bullets and was mortally wounded. She was able to evac the children to safety before dying from her wounds. Neerja was awarded the Ashok Chakra Award by India, the highest peacetime gallantry award possible. She was the youngest and first civilian to ever be awarded this honor.

Through testimonies from the flight crew and passengers during the sentencing of one of the hijackers, and interviews done by the BBC, we were able to gather key facts from that fateful day. In 2004, Zayad al Safarini, a Jordanian hijacker who was part of the attack, was sentenced by a U.S. district judge to 160 years in prison. At the hearing for his sentencing, a number of passengers, flight attendants, and Bhanot’s brother, came forward to recount the events of the hijacking. The full transcript of their testimonies can be read here.

Did Bhanot Gather and Hide American Passports?

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

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."

Descriptions from passengers and family members from the sentencing of Safarini detailed the moment that flight attendants were told to gather passports, and the ways in which they tried to protect the Americans among them. Aneesh Bhanot, Neerja’s brother, who was not on the plane as these events took place, described this effort as one carried out by all the flight attendants together:

Neerja was an Indian citizen. All the other flight attendants were also Indian citizens. Mr. Safarini and his gang were targeting Americans, as was very obvious from the passenger calls which you heard later on. Neerja and all the other attendants knew this. That is why when they asked them to get the passports of all the passengers, they hid the American passports on the airplane.

He also cited the testimony of another passenger that was published in the Cincinnati Enquirer in September 1986. A clipping of that paper is available below (in which Bhanot is referred to as Neerja Mishra):

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

Then came the call for passports, and I should have ignored it. But I felt that I had to obey orders. So I took out my passport and I handed it in, still thinking that the Americans would be in front of us, not reckoning the ingenuity and the extraordinary bravery of the stewardess who was making the collection in discarding American passports that had a white face. I suppose the British were [the] third choice for the terrorists. And after the Americans and the Israelis, mine was the only one of a small handful of British passports with a white face in that pile. I think maybe six or seven, something of that sort. So the call came over the public address for passenger Michael John to come forward, then Michael John Thexton, and I knew that they wanted to shoot me.

Darrell Pieper, an American passenger, credited flight attendant Sunshine Vesuwala for protecting his identity. In his testimony, he said, “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 attorney representing the U.S. government, 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 played a big role in protecting the American passengers by hiding their passports, but was not the only flight attendant doing this, we rate this part of the claim as mostly true.

Did Bhanot Single Handedly Evacuate Passengers?

In this instance, even as Bhanot showed remarkable bravery in getting passengers to safety, she was not alone in this effort. According to Maisel, passengers escaped after Bhanot and others were able to open up some exits:

As the bullets and grenades flew, Neerja Bhanot, as well as other flight attendants and passengers, heroically managed to force open two exits in the economy section. The opening of the rear exit triggered inflation of the emergency slide, but the opening of the exit over the wing did not trigger the inflation of a second emergency slide. People clamored to reach both exits fearful that the hijackers would resume the assault.
This diagram illustrates the efforts of surviving hostages to escape the aircraft using the emergency slide and climbing onto the wing of the plane. While the slide was a safer escape route, the sheer number of people attempting to leave the plane through this exit at night resulted in additional injuries to some who were unable to exit quickly enough to avoid being crushed by others behind them.
At the direction of several flight attendants, other passengers reentered the plane climbing over the wounded and the dead and used the rear exit where the slide was inflated to the safer escape route.

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

There's another passenger from Pakistan, a gentleman called Hussein, who had written an article in a newspaper called the Star of Pakistan. And he wrote again that says as the lights went out at 10:00 p.m. we was herded with the passengers and the shooting started. From nowhere, his savior, Neerja, and I'm sure other flight attendants also did the same thing, had the presence and the nerve to steer through the pandemonium to lead the passengers where to go. Neerja, by sheer zest, it seems, single-handedly opened the chute. Her favorite words to him and other passengers were, get out, run.

In this instance, since Bhanot appeared to have taken the lead in helping passengers escape and was also aided by other crew and passengers, we rate this part of the claim as a mixture, given that she did not do this alone.

Was Bhanot Shot Dead While Shielding Three Children?

Bhanot’s death was described through different accounts, based on information gathered in the aftermath of the attack. Some reports said she was protecting three children, while flight attendants described her being shot during the escape.

Jennifer Levy, another attorney representing the U.S. government, described Bhanot’s final moments:

When the lights went out just before the final assault, Ms. Bhanot ran for the emergency door and activated the inflatable chute. Instead of escaping as one of the first off the aircraft, she remained on board to help others out of the plane. She was shot in the final assault. Although she was taken off the plane alive by her fellow flight attendants, she died shortly afterwards of massive bleeding.

Viraf Daroga, Pan Am’s director in Pakistan, described how Bhanot was brought down from the aircraft through the emergency chute:

Those who were injured were picked up as they came down the chute, put in ambulances that came rushing to the aircraft, and were driven off to various hospitals. Neerja, the senior purser, was brought down by her colleagues and was taken to the hospital. She died in the hospital in the arms of one of my staff.

Aneesh Bhanot’s testimony described how Bhanot was indeed protecting three children when she was shot and killed:

Neerja could have been the first one to escape from the aircraft as she opened the emergency door, yet she chose not to do that. Instead, she got the passengers out and gave her own life, as we are told, while shielding three small children from gunfire. Her actions probably saved hundreds of lives.

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

Since reports differ on what happened during Bhanot’s final moments, and some details remain uncertain, we rate the overall truth of this claim as  "Mixture." But there is no doubting that her actions, as well as the actions of other flight attendants and crew, saved many lives. She was posthumously awarded the Ashok Chakra award, which is India's highest civilian decoration for bravery.

Nur Nasreen Ibrahim is a reporter with experience working in television, international news coverage, fact checking, and creative writing.