Terrorism “A Tribute to Neerja Bhanot”

Pan Am 73

N656PA, plane involved in hijacking, seen in January 1985 at Hamburg Airport

The Karachi Hijacking of 5th Sept 1986

Pan Am Flight 73, a Boeing 747-121, N656PA, Clipper Empress of the Seas, was hijacked on 5 September 1986 while on the ground at Karachi, Pakistan by four armed men of the Abu Nidal Organization. The aircraft, with 360 passengers on board, had just arrived from Mumbai, India, and was preparing to depart for Frankfurt and continuing to New York.

The incident began as passengers boarded the aircraft. The four hijackers were dressed as Karachi airport security guards and were armed with assault rifles, pistols, grenades and plastic explosive belts. At about 6:00 a.m., the hijackers drove a van that had been modified to look like an airport security vehicle through a security checkpoint up to one of the boarding stairways to aircraft. The hijackers stormed up the stairways into the plane, fired shots from an automatic weapon, and seized control of the aircraft. Flight attendants were able to alert the cockpit crew using intercom, allowing the pilot (Captain Snibes), first officer and flight engineer to escape through an overhead hatch in the cockpit, effectively grounding the aircraft.

During the following 16 hours, Zayd Hassan Safarini, the Jordanian leader of the hijackers, demanded the return of the flight crew to fly the aircraft to Larnaca, Cyprus, where he wanted to secure the release of Palestinian prisoners being detained in Cyprus. During negotiations between Safarini and Pakistani authorities, Safarini threatened to kill all passengers. Four hours into the hijacking, one of the passengers was shot and pushed out the door onto the tarmac below. As nightfall arrived, the hijackers herded the passengers and crew members into the centre section of the aircraft. The four hijackers opened fire on the passengers and crew, and threw grenades among them, killing almost 20. Most of the survivors escaped through two doors of the plane which were forced open when the firing began.

Pan Am Captain Hart Langer was in Hamburg at the time of the hijacking and received word that the hijackers were demanding a crew to fly them anywhere they wanted to go. Below are his recollections of what happened in excerpts from his essay “Karachi Hijacking – Rescuing a 747” in the book Pan American World Airways – Aviation History Through the Words of its People, published by Blue Water Press.
A 747 without a crew was useless to the hijackers, and they demanded that Pan Am provide an Arabic-speaking crew to fly them where they wanted to go. Captain Jim Duncan (System Chief Pilot), through his contacts in IATA, called Captain Jazza Ghanem, the Vice-President of Flight Operations at Saudia (Saudi Arabian Airlines) to see if they could help out. Captain Ghanem was willing, but unfortunately was overruled by top management at Saudia.

As a result, the consensus at System Operations Control at JFK (New York), was that if Pan Am could find a volunteer crew, negotiations with the hijackers would hopefully get them to release all of the passengers in return for flying them to some other location. Captain Duncan wanted to know if Captain Ed Cywinski and I could head to Karachi and fly the 747 to wherever the hijackers wanted to go, in return for releasing all 390 passengers. We agreed. Bob Huettl, a check Flight Engineer who was laying over in London also volunteered. 

As it turned out, the APU (Auxiliary Propulsion Unit) that was supplying electrical power to the 747 in KHI had a small oil leak, and the Tech Center at JFK had predicted exactly when it would shut itself down and stop providing power to the 747. When it finally happened, the airplane went dark, and the hijackers thought that they were under attack. They herded all the passengers into the over wing area, began shooting people at random, and set off numerous explosive devices. At that point, the Pakistani army did indeed attack the airplane and finally overpowered the hijackers.

All of this happened while we were en route to Karachi. Captain Duncan could get in touch with the Swissair DC-10 using a phone patch and HF radio, and informed us that the hijackers had been arrested. When we arrived, we had a chance to inspect the airplane. The carnage was unbelievable. Pan Am dispatched a crack team of mechanics from London to Karachi, and in five days they had the airplane in a flyable condition – which is remarkable considering that there were fifty-seven bullet holes in the fuselage. Ed, Bob, and I flew the airplane back to JFK with a fuel stop in Frankfurt.”

Neerja Bhanot: 7th Sept 1963–5th Sept 1986

Senior Purser of an Indian cabin crew on flight Clipper 73 from Bombay to New York via Karachi and Frankfurt. Of the 379 crew and passengers on board, 20 died. Earlier, difficult marriage in Riyadh. Returned home.


Abdul Sattar Eidhi , a humanitarian helping a stricken passenger down the stairs of the aircraft


Her performance:

  • resisted entry of the hijackers at the front passenger entry door by trying to close it as she watched the shooting unfold below while the hijackers were storming the aircraft. Informed cockpit about hijackers entry via intercom.
  • Resisted identifying American passport holders to the hijackers by not collecting their passports. One American of Indian origin shot by hijackers to accelerate their demand for the cockpit crew to return to the aircraft and fly them out. The cockpit crew had escaped through the cockpit emergency exit on the warning of the senior purser leaving her and the rest of the crew and passengers behind.
  • One radio engineer passenger who had boarded from Karachi and was assisting in telecommunication with security agencies was also shot later in the cockpit.
  • Served water and refreshments to the passengers.
  • Deployed the door mounted evacuation slides and over wing evacuation slides as she shouted for evacuation as soon as the auxiliary power unit (APU) went off and the hijackers started shooting the passengers. The APU supplies electrical power and air conditioning on the ground and is self-contained in the aircraft.
  • Eventually she was herself shot as she was searching for any leftover passengers.
  • Escaped through slide but died later of her injuries. She was doing a job which a captain usually does of being the last man/woman out.
  • The citation on “Ashok Chakra”, India’s Highest Civil Award read:
  • “Her loyalties to the passengers will forever be a lasting tribute to the finest qualities of human spirit.”
  • Pakistanis gave her the Tamgha-e-Insaniyat: “For showing incredible human kindness.”
  • The U.S. Government gave the: Flight Safety Foundation Heroism Award; Justice for Crimes Award; Special Courage Award

From Wikipedia.org: Hijacking summary

Date September 5, 1986
Site Karachi, Sindh, Pakistan
Passengers 360
Crew 19
Aircraft type Boeing 747-121
Aircraft name Clipper Empress of the Seas
Operator Pan American World Airways,
Registration N656PA
Flight origin Sahar International Airport, Mumbai, India


Stopover Jinnah International Airport, Karachi, Pakistan
Last stopover Frankfurt am Main Airport, Frankfurt am Main, West Germany
Destination John F. Kennedy Int’l Airport, New York, United States




Injuries (non-fatal)




Pan Am Flight 73, a Pan American World Airways Boeing 747-121, was hijacked on September 5, 1986, while on the ground at Karachi, Pakistan, by four armed Palestinian men of the Abu Nidal Organization. The aircraft, with 360 passengers on board, had just arrived from Sahar International Airport in Mumbai, India, and was preparing to depart Jinnah International Airport in Karachi for Frankfurt Airport in Frankfurt am Main, West Germany, continuing to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, United States.  A June 2001 grand jury charged that the militants were planning to use the hijacked plane to pick up Palestinian prisoners in both Cyprus and Israel.

Forty-three of the passengers were killed during the hijacking: nationals from India, the United States, Pakistan, and Mexico. All the hijackers were arrested and sentenced to death in Pakistan. However, the sentences were later commuted to life in prison. Neerja Bhanot, head attendant on the flight, posthumously received India’s highest peacetime award for bravery, the Ashok Chakra Award for her efforts to save passengers’ lives during the hijacking.

The incident began as passengers boarded the Frankfurt-bound aircraft in Karachi. A subsequent CIA investigation revealed that the hijack occurred despite the presence of armed agents near the aircraft. The four hijackers were dressed as Karachi airport security guards and were armed with assault rifles, pistols, grenades, and plastic explosive belts. At about 06:00 local time, the hijackers drove a van that had been modified to look like an airport security vehicle through a security checkpoint up to one of the boarding stairways to Pan Am Flight 73.

The hijackers stormed up the stairways into the plane, fired shots from an automatic weapon, and seized control of the aircraft. Two of the flight attendants could alert the cockpit crew using the intercom, allowing the pilot, co-pilot, and flight engineer to flee through an overhead hatch in the cockpit preventing the hijackers forcing the plane to takeoff. The plane was effectively grounded at the airport.

Within a short time after seizing control of the aircraft, hijacker Zayd Hassan Abd Al-Latif Masud Al Safarini realized that the crew had escaped off the plane and therefore he would be forced to negotiate with officials. First and business class passengers were ordered to go towards the back of the plane. At the same time, passengers at the back of the plane were ordered forward. Since the plane was nearly full, passengers sat down in the aisles, galleys and door exits. At approximately 10:00, Safarini went through the plane and arrived at the seat of Rajesh Kumar, a 29-year-old Indian American resident of California who had recently been naturalized as an American citizen. Safarini ordered Kumar to come to the front of the aircraft, to kneel at the front doorway of the aircraft, and to face the front of the aircraft with his hands behind his head. He negotiated with officials, Viraf Daroga, the head of Pan Am’s Pakistan operation, that if the crew wasn’t sent on the plane within 15 minutes, then Kumar would be shot. Shortly thereafter, Safarini became impatient with the officials and grabbed Kumar and shot him in the head in front of witnesses both on and off the aircraft. Safarini heaved Kumar out of the door onto the tarmac below. Pakistani personnel on the tarmac reported that Kumar was still breathing when he was placed in an ambulance, but he was pronounced dead on the way to the hospital in Karachi.

Safarini joined the hijackers and ordered flight attendant Sunshine Vesuwala to collect the passports of all passengers. She complied with this request, risking her own life. During the collection of the passports, believing passengers with American passports would be singled out by the hijackers., Vesuwala proceeded to hide some of the American passports under seats, and dumped the rest down a rubbish chute.

After the passports had been collected one of the crew members came onto the intercom and asked for Michael John Thexton, a British citizen, to come to the front of the plane. He went through the curtain into the front of the plane where he came face to face with Safarini who was holding Thexton’s passport. He asked Thexton if he was a soldier and if he had a gun, Thexton replied “No”. He ordered Thexton onto his knees. Safarini told the officials that if anyone came near the plane that he would go on to kill another passenger. Viraf Daroga told Safarini that there was a crew member on board who could use the cockpit radio and asked him to negotiate through radio. Safarini went back to Thexton and asked him whether he would like a drink of water, to which Thexton replied “Yes.” Safarini also asked Thexton if he was married, and claimed he did not like all this violence and killing and said that the Americans and Israelis had taken over his country and left him unable to lead a proper life.

One of the hijackers ordered Thexton back through the plane to a seat. The hijack stalemate continued into the night. During the stalemate, flight attendant Neerja Bhanot secretly removed a page from her manual that explained all the procedures for the 3R aircraft door and placed it inside of a magazine and handed it to the passenger near the door. She instructed him to “read” the magazine and then close it up, but refer to it later if necessary. This page included information on how to open the exit door and deploy the slide down to the apron. About 21:00 the auxiliary power unit shut down, all lighting turned off, and emergency lights came on. Passengers at the front were ordered toward the back, while passengers at the back were ordered forward. Since the aisles were already full of passengers, those passengers standing just sat down.

With the plane out of power and sitting in near darkness a hijacker at the 1L door said a prayer and then aimed to shoot at the explosive belt the other hijacker at the 1R door was wearing. The intent was to cause an explosion massive enough to kill all passengers and crew on board, as well as themselves. Since the cabin was so dark, the hijacker missed, causing only a small detonation. Immediately the hijackers began shooting their weapons into the cabin at passengers and attempted to throw their grenades. Yet again the lack of light caused them to not pull pins fully and create small explosions. Ultimately, bullets created most damage since each bullet would bounce off the aircraft and create crippling shrapnel. The flight attendant at the 3L door decided it was time to act and opened the door; although the slide did not deploy, several passengers and crew jumped down the fifteen feet (or 6m/20 ft. to the tarmac. The passenger that was near 3R had read the page the flight attendant earlier gave him and was able to successfully open that door. It was the only door opened to have the slide deploy. Ultimately this slide allowed for more passengers to evacuate safely and without injuries. Neerja Bhanot was injured in the shooting and carried off the aircraft by Dilip Bidichandani and Sunshine Vesuwala. Twenty passengers were killed and over a hundred were injured.


Pakistan quickly sent in the Pakistan Army’s Special Services Group (SSG) commandos and Pakistan Rangers were put on high-alert. The 17-hour long hijacking came to an end when the hijackers opened fire on the passengers at 21:30 Pakistan Standard Time, but soon ran out of ammunition, resulting in some passengers fleeing the aircraft through the aircraft’s emergency exits. The SSG responded by storming the aircraft and seizing the hijackers. The SSG commando unit was headed by Brigadier Tariq Mehmood and the Shaheen Company of the SSG’s 1st Commando Battalion carried out the operation.


The 381 total passengers plus crew on Pan Am 73 were citizens of 14 different countries. Citizens of India represented roughly 26% of the people on board the flight, and 28% of those killed.

Nationalities of passengers


Passenger Crew Total




0 4 0


0 2




0 30




0 8



4 1 5









8 99




0 5




0 27




0 8




0 44




0 2




4 19


United States


9 44




16 381


 Aftermath: Trial and sentencing

On July 6, 1988, five Palestinian men were convicted in Pakistan for their roles in the hijacking and murders and sentenced to death: Zayd Hassan Abd al-Latif Safarini, Wadoud Muhammad Hafiz al-Turki, Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim, Muhammad Abdullah Khalil Hussain ar-Rahayyal, and Muhammad Ahmed al-Munawar. The sentences were later commuted to life in prison.

Safarini was handed over to the FBI from a prison in Pakistan in September 2001. He was taken to the United States where on May 13, 2005 he was sentenced to a 160-year prison term. At the plea proceeding, Safarini admitted that he and his fellow hijackers committed the offenses as members of the Abu Nidal Organization, also called the ANO, a designated terrorist organization. The other four prisoners have escaped from Adiala jail Rawalpindi, reportedly in January 2008.

Libyan involvement and legal action

Libya has been accused of sponsoring the hijacking, as well as carrying out the bombings of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988 and UTA Flight 772 in 1989.

In August 2003, Libya accepted responsibility for “the actions of its officials” in respect of the bombing Pan Am Flight 103, but was silent on the question of the Pan Am Flight 73 hijacking.

Libya offered $2.7 billion US in compensation to the families of the 270 victims of Pan Am Flight 103 and, in January 2004, agreed to pay $170 million to the families of the 170 UTA victims. The seven American UTA victims’ families refused the offer and instead filed a claim for $2.2 billion against Libya. From 2004 to 2006 the U.S. and UK opened relations with Libya, including removing sanctions and removing the country as a sponsor of terrorism.

In June 2004, a volunteer group of families and victims from the incident, Families from Pan Am Flight 73, was formed to work toward a memorial for those killed in the incident, to seek the truth behind this terrorist attack, and to hold those responsible for it accountable. On April 5, 2006, the law firm of Crowell & Moring LLP, representing the surviving passengers, estates and family members of the hijacking victims, announced it was filing a civil suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeking $10 billion in compensatory damages, plus unspecified punitive damages, from Libya, Muammar al-Gaddafi and the five convicted hijackers. The lawsuit alleged Libya provided the Abu Nidal Organization with material support and ordered the attack as part of a Libyan-sponsored terrorist campaign against American, European and Israeli interests.

British media that was critical of normalisation of relations between Gaddafi and the West reported in March 2004 (days after Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Tripoli) that Libya was behind the hijacking.

As of September 2015, about $700 million of funds that Libya gave the USA to settle claims related to Libyan sponsored terrorism has not been distributed to families of victims who were Indian passport holders.

Reward and reported killing of accused

Zayd Hassan Abd al-Latif Safarini was extradited to the US by the Government of Pakistan. He is serving his 160-year sentence at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana. On December 3, 2009, the FBI, in coordination with the State Department, announced a $5M reward for information that leads to the capture of each of the four remaining hijackers of Pan Am 73, who were reported to have been released from prison in Pakistan in 2008. One of the four, Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim, was reported killed in a drone strike on January 9, 2010, in Pakistan. His death was never confirmed, and he remains on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists and Rewards for Justice lists.

During his November 9, 2015 parole hearing at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Zaid Safarini claimed to have been in touch with Jamal Rahim and the other hijackers recently – thereby suggesting that the above news report of Rahim’s death was false.


The aircraft was a four-engined Boeing 747-121 delivered to Pan Am on 18 June 1971, with registration N656PA and named Clipper Live Yankee by the airline. It was later renamed, and at the time of the incident was Clipper Empress of the Seas.

Courtesy of Wikipedia.org

6 thoughts on “Terrorism “A Tribute to Neerja Bhanot”

  1. On 22 December 2015, I had written on the subject, the Pan Am Karachi Hijacking:

    The reaction of the security agencies at Karachi Airport seems to have been more of watching and waiting. After one of the passengers was shot and killed four hours into the hijacking, it was evident that these guys would kill again if their demands were not met. I am not aware of how the communication between the hijackers and the security agencies went on, but it required pacification and constant contact.

    The APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) going off should have been made known to the hijackers to forestall surprises, for they interpreted it differently.

    If the army had timed the rescue at that moment, it is unfortunate that so many died. The cockpit crew did escape but this led to a more serious situation as we have seen. If the aircraft had taken off in the hijacked state from Karachi, it is anybody’s guess if more people would have died.

    It would have been a very difficult decision, more so in the light of how another crew would have reacted, but a captain is responsible for the aircraft and passengers. It can be said that the aircraft was on the ground, but the crew was in the cockpit.There is a duty to the passengers and the cabin crew. I don’t think their escape in any way helped anything, save the aircraft.

  2. I had actually read your previous account of poor Neerja Bhanot before reading your more recent blog regarding Iran Air 655 but am commenting later here. Your attention to detail Sir is most commendable, making your accounts very vivid readable, yet technically accurate.

    Although an incident which occurred in UK airspace, I’d like to someday see your account of the ‘unknown’ yet well-known flight deck ‘happenings’ surrounding the incident of the BEA HS Trident crash at Staines, near Heathrow on 18th June 1972.

    • The Trident captain’s medical condition was well known. It is possible that we were led away from the core issue which was the glaring inexperience of the copilot sitting on the right seat. The heart attack story is pure conjecture and assignment as the primary cause. The copilot retracted the slats before the aircraft had enough flying speed to sustain that. The captain was fit enough to handle the aircraft through three stalls. This type of aircraft with a T tail goes into a super stall because the downwash from the wings affects the empennage.

      • I’m not sure it was ever quite as simple as that. Not that we’ll ever know of course, given the lack of CVR. There are all sorts of theories regarding possible theoretical mix-ups between what the captain may have said, and what the P2 may have understood. It does look as if the captain was very possibly undergoing some painful chest pain at the time of take-off, as the medical opinion suggested after post-mortem. From what I’ve seen in various blogs and professional Web pages, it does rather sound though that there was a terrible flight deck hierarchy system in place in BEA way back then -and a system that would simply not (hopefully) happen today. Whether this did stem from the ex-wartime services hierarchy regime is often surmised, though it would appear that perhaps BEA might possibly have been more susceptible to this than other airlines. And surely, if the captain had flown the aircraft out of three stalls, why didn’t he select the droops back out, put the nose down, open the throttles and fly the aircraft out of the pending stall he found himself in? It is proven from the flight recorders that the captain (who was known to be flying the aircraft) held the aircraft below the specified speed at all times. Surely this points to the fact that he was suffering from some sort of catastrophic episode that affected his judgement.
        Whatever happened, it certainly was a truly sad and miserable day, that horrible wet, squally London day of 19th June 1972.
        Just shows how things have come on since then.

      • Even the Almighty couldn’t have altered the situation; the captain was a mere mortal. The Trident stall is different from the stalling of other aircraft with the conventional tail assembly. The Trident has a T-tail assembly which near the stall comes into the downward flow of air from the wing trailing edge, or downwash from the wings. The elevator control in the tail assembly whose input through the pilot raises the nose up or down becomes ineffective in this downwash of air and the nose cannot be brought down by the pilot. To compensate for this, a stick pusher motor is installed which automatically pushes the nose down as the aircraft approaches the stalling angle. A Trident aircraft was lost under the command of George Errington, a test pilot of 40 years experience during a training flight due to a super stall condition from which they could not recover; hence the stick pusher mentioned above was installed. Captain Key had given no command for slats to be raised up. The indicated airspeed had exceeded the slats extended speed of 177 knots. The captain, I believe was trying to get back to that speed by pulling on the control column.

        Speed and throttle opening to the gate would not matter, as the aircraft stalls when the lift is not produced by the wings because the angle of attack has exceeded the stalling angle. The angle of attack is the angle at which the flight path (relative airflow) meets the chord line of the wing of the aircraft. The stall of an aircraft is irrespective of power or speed.

        The Air France flight which crashed in the Atlantic recently was in a similar situation, it crashed in the same flying attitude, with the nose up.

        I believe we were deliberately led astray towards the captain’s heart attack for which the post mortem would only reveal clogged arteries, which was already known. It maybe as simple as this.

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