We only knew her as Lado. When Neerja Bhanot was killed in the Pan Am hijacking in 1986, my parents weren’t sure if it was her. My father called up Uncle Bhanot in Bombay and asked, “Is everything ok?” He said, “No. Lado is no more.” And put down the phone.
My parents and the Bhanots became friends in the 1960s in Chandigarh. Over the decades, my parents always remembered how Lado was her dad’s darling even before she was born. She was the Ladli whose name he’d chosen months before she arrived into this world. “If it’s a girl, I am going to name my daughter Lado,” Uncle Bhanot told my parents as he and his wife, Rama, excitedly awaited her birth.
Lado’s birth brought boundless joy to her father. My parents say he was beside himself with excitement at her birth.
“Neerja was a fruit of our long prayers for a daughter. We had two sons and were longing for a daughter. It was September 7, 1962 at Chandigarh – where I was posted at that time. The maternity ward matron rang up to inform me that we had been blessed with a baby girl,” he wrote in the Hindustan Times a month after she died.
“I was very happy to hear this and gave her a double thanks. She thought I had got her wrong and so she repeated ‘It is a daughter’. I explained to her the daughter had already two brothers and that is why it was an occasion for double thanks.”
Everything was going perfectly fine in the 23 years. But then a day came when Neerja Bhanot, a senior flight attendant with Pan Am airlines, died on September 5, 1986 just two days short of her 24th birthday.
She was the senior crew of Flight-73 from Mumbai to New York that was hijacked at Karachi airport.
The terrorists wanted to fly to Israel and crash the plane against a building. Soon after the aircraft was hijacked, Neerja Bhanot immidiately alerted the cockpit crew and, the three-member crew of pilot, co-pilot and the flight engineer fled the aircraft. Neerja Bhanot, being the most senior cabin crew member remaining aboard,and took the charge.
Finally after 17 hours, the hijackers opened fire and set off explosives. Bhanot opened the emergency door and helped a number of passengers escape. She was shot while shielding three children from a hail of bullets fired by the terrorists.