On September 5, 1986, the world witnessed another instance of inhumanity, when an American Jet Airways flight was hijacked. Motive was evil, the hijackers had held innocents as hostages to use the aircraft for lifting Palestinian prisoners from Israel and Cyprus. The hijackers were part of the Abu Nidal Organization, an organization of militants. The horrific event witnessed by the hostages, has been described by the survivors as a “black holocast inside a plane.” Let us know the details of the incident through this article.
What We will Explore
- Some facts about the hijack
- Events before, during and after the Hijack
- The Brave hearted Crew
- Neerja Bhanot- The Brave Daughter of India
- Briefing Up
Some Facts about the Hijack
- Date of Hijack: September 5, 1986
- Place where the Aircraft was Hijacked: Jinnah International Airport, Karachi, Pakistan
- The name of the Aircraft was Clipper Empress of the Seas and was of the type Boeing 747-121.
- Origin and Destination of the Flight: From Sahara International Airport, Mumbai to John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York, United States.
- Passengers Onboard: 365 passengers and 16 crew members
- Reported deaths: 20
Events before, during and after the Hijack
The Aircraft had landed at the Karachi Airport, at its scheduled time at 4:30 in the morning. The crew was engaged in preparing for the takeoff to its next stopover which was Frankfurt am Main Airport, West Germany. Four hijackers disguised as security personnel were spotted outside the aircraft in a van. Within minutes they entered the aircraft firing gunshots with the purpose to skyjack the plane.
One of the flight attendants was quick enough to connect an intercom call to the pilot to inform her that the plane was hijacked. Neerja Bhanot, the flight attendant was grabbed by a militant and was at gunpoint. The hijacker wanted her to take him to the captain. They were ready with their plan of flying the hijacked aircraft to Cyprus and Israel, where their co-members of the militant organization were prisoned on terror charges.
The pilots, after being informed about the hijack, had escaped the cockpit. The step, though criticised by some of the crew members, was perceived in a positive light by other crew members. As per a statement by flight steward Dilip Bidichandani, “The pilots evacuating the airplane… meant that we were not at the mercy of the terrorists, who could have instructed the plane to be flown into a building or even blown up whilst in flight.”
Amidst the militants’ search for the pilots, they had taken an American Indian passenger Rajesh Kumar (a resident of California) towards the open door of the plane and when no pilot appeared, he was shot dead and kicked out of the aircraft. This sent a wave of panic and fear among the passengers and crew members who became sure about the ruthlessness of the hijackers.
The hijackers had warned the crew that a passenger would be shot dead after every fifteen minutes if any of the pilots wouldn’t appear. They were checking passports to confirm the nationality of the passengers, keeping Americans first on their hit list. They were told by the crew mechanic Meherjee Kharas that the emergency lights would go off soon and there would be darkness inside the aircraft.
Time passed but no demand of the hijackers was met while they continued negotiating with a local Pan Am representative and Pakistani police. Since no pilot materialised, they lost their patience and started firing in anger when the emergency lights went off. Meherjee Kharas was shot dead within minutes of the blackout.
Making the most out of the darkness, the exits of the plane were opened and the passengers with the aid of the crew members rushed out of the aircraft in a desperate attempt to save their lives. At least twenty lives were lost in the chaotic firing. The frustrated hijackers also tried to execute their backup plan of detonating the explosives belt which would have caused the mass killing. But due to darkness, they missed the shots and only small explosions occurred.
The firing stopped as the militants probably ran short of ammunition. The crew members, putting their lives at stake, went back to the aircraft to look if there were survivors. The hijack had lasted for seventeen long hours.
What happened to the hijackers?
- After the commotion three of the hijackers had fled.
- Pakistan Army’s Special Services Groups Commandos and Pakistan Rangers were put on high alert.
- All of the four hijackers were later caught and imprisoned.
- Zayd Hassan Safarini, the lead hijacker was released from prison in 2001 but was again held captive by the US authorities. He pled guilty of hijack, spreading terrorism and 95 murders and was sentenced for 160 years in prison in December 2003.
The Brave Hearted Crew
The flight attendants who play an important role in attending the needs of the passengers during flight, went far beyond their duties that day and showed the world the colours of humanity. In a situation of utter chaos and fear, these brave-hearted humans acted spontaneously missing no opportunity to save the passengers on the hijacked Boeing 747.
Lives of two crew members Meherjee Kharas and Neerja Bhanot were lost in the horrific event.
Neerja Bhanot: The Ashok Chakra Awardee
The 23-year-old, senior flight attendant Neerja Bhanot died while saving passengers from the terror of the ruthless firing by the hijackers. She was shot in the hip and was rushed by the fellow attendants for medical help. Sadly she couldn’t survive the injury and died young.
- For her brave efforts, she was honoured with India’s highest Peacetime Award for bravery-The Ashok Chakra. This made her the youngest and the first female recipient of this honour.
- Her selfless efforts to save lives was recognised by the whole world and she was honoured by Pakistan and the US governments with several accolades.
- A biopic named Neerja, directed by Ram Mahwani was released in the year 2016.
- A stamp was issued by the Indian Postal Service in 2004 to commemorate her.
The terror witnessed by those onboard that day lingers still in their minds and soul even after so many years. The survivors who spoke after several years about the incident have expressed it as a black holocaust inside the aircraft. They also expressed their gratitude for the selfless services of the flight attendants. It is because of such brave-hearted people that even after so many terror accounts occurring across the globe, we still don’t lose hope of a peaceful world.