Pan Am 73
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Inside the hijack
Nearly 30 years after the hijack of Pan Am Flight 73 at Karachi airport, six of the plane's crew have spoken to the media for the first time.
"My first instinct was to open the wing exit and slip out with as many passengers as I could, but I realised that this would leave the rest of the passengers vulnerable," then flight attendant Nupoor Abrol told BBC News.
Security forces laid siege to the New York-bound plane for 16 hours at Karachi airport after the jet was taken over by Palestinian militants on 5 September 1986. There was a bloody end - 22 people killed and about 150 injured. It shocked the world, and is the subject of a newly released film, but the surviving crew have until now remained silent.
While they relayed the events to a private FBI meeting a week after the hijack, and to a parole hearing for the lead hijacker in 2005, this is the first time they have shared details with the media. They also shed light on the last few hours of Neerja Bhanot, their colleague who died in the attack and is the subject of the new film.
They are breaking this silence now, they say, because they want to honour and acknowledge the vital roles played by all on board, most of whom are not known to the public.
"The hijack is far from over for me and my colleagues. Some of us, passengers and crew alike, are still struggling with the skeletons of the past, trying to fix the puzzle of incidents, sequences, people who were involved in the chains of events," says Nupoor.
"The stories may differ but the spirit remains the same."
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.
Nupoor saw them shoot near the feet of a colleague, shouting at her to lock the door.
Flight attendant Sherene Pavan, who was out of sight of the militants, heard the commotion, reached for the intercom and pressed the emergency number to the cockpit. The pilot picked up on her second attempt and she relayed the hijack code.
Fellow attendant Sunshine Vesuwala saw one of the hijackers grab a colleague, Neerja Bhanot, and put a gun to her head.
And then another militant, his AK-47 and grenades in clear view, instructed Sunshine to take him to the captain.
The disappeared pilots
The cockpit was empty.
"I noticed immediately that the escape devices in the cockpit had been deployed. I noticed that the evacuation hatch on the ceiling of the cockpit was open, but I pretended not to. I wanted to give the pilots time to escape in case they were still in the process of climbing down the ropes outside the plane. The hijacker didn't seem to know much about the plane so he didn't look for it," says Sunshine.
"Many have criticised the pilots for leaving the rest of the crew behind, but I was relieved when I saw the pilots were gone, as we were all safer on the ground than we would be in the air. And in any case, at least the three pilots were safe. Three lives would be saved."
Dilip Bidichandani, another steward, is adamant that the pilots' escape actually saved more lives.
"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."
The gunmen's plan was to force the pilots to fly them to Cyprus and Israel, where other members of their militant group were incarcerated on terror charges.
Outside on the tarmac, Pan Am's Karachi director Viraf Doroga used a megaphone to begin negotiations with the hijackers. He told the four men that the airport authorities were looking for pilots to fly them where they needed to go.
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.
Sherene and Sunshine were the cabin crew who spent the most time with lead hijacker Zaid Hassan Abd Latif Safarini. He repeatedly led either Sunshine or Sherene at gunpoint up to the upper deck cockpit, using them as human shields while he peeked round them to have a look outside.
"On occasion he would hold my hair, force my face to the window and ask what I could see on the tarmac. He said he was looking for American fighter planes," says Sherene.
The Pan Am hijackers
The Abu Nidal Organisation (ANO) is a Palestinian militant group, now considered largely inactive. Also known as Fatah-The Revolutionary Council, it is listed as a terrorist group by the United States, Israel and the European Union. It was blamed for a string of attacks in the 1970s and 80s, killing and wounding hundreds of people.
The Pan Am crew were recognised with courage awards by the airline in 1986, the US Department of Justice in 2005 and the US attorney general in 2006. Neerja Bhanot was the only crew member to be awarded posthumous bravery awards by India and Pakistan
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
Meherjee Kharas, a 28-year-old Pan Am mechanic on board, was forced to make radio contact with negotiators outside. At this stage the hijackers still believed a pilot would be found to fly the plane for them.
Over the next few hours on the upper deck, Safarini let his guard down several times, Sunshine says. He joked and flirted, invited her to go with him to Cyprus, and promised to teach her to swim.
Sunshine remained alert. At one point she looked longingly at the emergency axe in a glass box in the cockpit. Safarini, mid-joke, caught her and immediately pointed the gun at her head.
"Don't even think about it," he said.
Eventually the militants threatened that, as a pilot had not materialised, a passenger would be shot every 15 minutes.
Nupoor tried to comfort the passengers around her while her colleague Dilip Bidichandani took round sandwiches and Neerja distributed water.
"That day, knowingly or unknowingly, we came together as a team and played our parts to the best of our ability," says Massey Casper, another steward.
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.
Sherene, and another colleague Ranee Vaswani, were the last two hostages to leave the plane. Three of the hijackers were fleeing the airport when they were caught by airport security. Safarini was still on board when Pakistan's security forces entered the plane.
Neerja's colleagues say she was still alive when she arrived at Karachi's Jinnah Hospital.
"It was chaotic, like a war zone, in there. Neerja may still be alive if she'd been cared for right away," says Sunshine.
"I didn't see medical facilities at the airport besides minor first aid… The hospital was several kilometres away from the airport," says Dilip. "Neerja was put into the ambulance without a stretcher."
Once they finally got to the hospital, the chaos continued, Sherene says.
"Neerja's life may have been saved were conditions in the hospital better."
Return to Pan Am
After a short break all the Flight 73 crew returned to Pan Am for at least a few years.
They occasionally worked the same flight and ran into each other at layovers. They didn't discuss the hijack.
All have coped in different ways. Two of the six remain in the industry.
During their interviews with the BBC, they stressed that there was no single hero that day, that crew members not interviewed played an equally important role, and that they want survivors of terror attacks like 9/11 and Paris to know that life goes on.
They also want people to know they dearly miss their colleagues Neerja Bhanot and Meherjee Kharas.
"Survivors [of such atrocities] are living each day with the memories," says Madhvi. She hopes that, in speaking out, "we can all connect through our survival stories and form a fabric of power and strength going forward".
As braveheart Neerja Bhanot’s biopic hits cinemas this weekend, Punekar Purnima Hardikar travels back 30 years to recount the hijack drama on Pan Am Flight 73
The film has opened to packed theatres and let loose a Pandora’s Box of haunting for survivors aboard the fateful Pan Am Flight 73. Hijacked by Palestinian terrorists in the early hours of September 5, 1986, the incident had resulted in 22 casualties, among them airhostess Neerja Bhanot — who has inspired the biopic. Also, among the 240 survivors was Kothrud resident Purnima Hardikar. She was all of 35 when it happened. Now, the trailers of Neerja have scratched an old wound for the 65-year-old homemaker, and memories she has been trying to erase for decades, have stirred up.
“I lived in fear for almost one year after the whole hijacking incident. I did not allow my kids to even burst crackers as the sound of explosives and bullets fired then had weakened my hearing abilities. The flight I had boarded was on its way to New York from Mumbai, but I didn’t know it would fly via Karachi. When it stopped there, it was almost 5.45 am. There were about 348 passengers on board when four heavily-armed men strode into the plane and I woke up with a start to the words, ‘hands up’ and ‘don’t move or else, you will be dead’. If it wasn’t for real, we would have thought it was a movie playing. Neerja Bhanot, the airhostess, announced that the plane was hijacked by terrorists belonging to the Abu Nidal Organisation,” recalled Hardikar.
She was travelling economy, seated in the fourth row. They were later made to sit with their hands on their heads and face locked between the legs. “We were not allowed to move an inch. Hours later, one passenger, who had a bad stomach pain, requested one of the terrorists if he could use the washroom. He was allowed, but made to crawl to the lavatory. Others accessed the washroom in a similar fashion; I did the same as well,” she shared. The hijackers were in their 20s, at the most; one was wearing a pathani suit, while the others were in security guard uniforms. They were stacked with bullets, revolvers, hand grenades and machine guns.
“I remember Neerja — she was a pretty-looking girl and wellmannered. In fact, she was the only staffer left on the plane. We figured that the pilot had abandoned us, as the hijackers asked passengers through Neerja if anyone knew radio engineering.
The hijackers used her to communicate with us as they could speak very little English. She was made to collect our passports before they began firing indiscriminately. There were bullets and blood everywhere. I was wearing a sleeveless top and a bullet even grazed me.”
All the passengers were huddled in the economy class and some were even made to sit on the floor. The ordeal went on till 10 pm, almost 16 hours. “At 9 pm, the lights began to dim as the plane had run out of fuel. We started panicking as we didn’t know if it was being done by the security outside or owing to the empty fuel tank. Then, without any warning, the hijackers began shooting everywhere at point blank range. Those sitting in the aisle and in the front row got shot. The plane was choking with smoke. Most of us were not able to hear a thing and were gasping for oxygen. They threw the hand grenades, too, but fortunately, those never exploded. They emitted a lot of sulphur gas nonetheless,” she said.
At this point, everybody tried to rush to the nearest emergency doors, but in vain. “The hijackers kept shouting and were discussing about Cyprus and some deal. Every time they had to communicate, they would bring in Neerja at gunpoint to explain themselves to us,” Hardikar stressed. Soon, the passengers tired. First, it was fear, then they resigned to fate. “By then, everyone had stopped struggling to escape as almost 22 people had lost their lives attempting to do so. I badly wanted to flee as I had two kids back home. I and a Pakistani co-passenger were near the wing, which had an emergency exit door. There was very little space and a terrorist was constantly watching over us. The moment he got busy changing the belt of the bullets, we took our chance. Moving swiftly, we forced ourselves out of that little exit and fell on to the ground. This was around 10 pm. I suffered a bloody nose, a broken jaw, my legs hurt and wrists injured. I had blood all over me, not just mine, but of others who were shot right in front of me,” the nightmare flashed once again in Hardikar’s eyes.
After falling from the second floor of the plane, she saw a blurry vision of a jeep, which took her to the government-run Karachi Hospital, where her nose was sutured. “It was a fracture and I was on liquid diet for three weeks. Later, I was reunited with my husband and all the hostages received royal treatment by the Pan Am Airways,” she added. Hardikar had seen Neerja getting shot while trying to open the plane door as she saw people gasping for breath after the random firing. “The next day, when the government took us back to the same plane to claim our baggage, it was drenched in blood, with clothes, shoes and jackets strewn all around.”
Many lives were lost. Hardikar believes her kids gave her the courage to attempt an escape. “Or else, I would have been dead by now. I jumped and survived. But, I can still hear the cries of those injured, bleeding profusely. And, of course, the dead bodies. The scars are still fresh.”