I was fortunate to interview Mr. Nayan Pancholi. One of the survivors and also eyewitness of hijacked Pan-Am flight in the year 1986. As the movie Neerja is releasing today, I thought it would be great to bring this story to all of you.
“It was 5th September 1986. Our tickets got confirmed at the last moment in Pan-Am Flight-73, which was headed to New York via Karachi and Frankfurt from Mumbai. We were a group of singers and music composers from Ahmedabad who were going to perform in different cities of US. At that time, I was just 21 years old. Our flight took off from Mumbai and landed in Karachi around 4:30 am.
There were some passengers for Karachi so they deboarded. Then soon cleaners entered the aircraft to clean the plane and as they were planning to leave. Four armed men in airport security clothes entered the plane from food cabin area in business class. We were seating in economy class at the back side near the tail. Suddenly there were screams and three-four shots were fired in the air. One terrorist had a machine gun in hand, the other one had grenades and belt full of bullets and the other two had many guns and grenades in hand. Everyone was told to have hand locked above their head. I just can’t forget that sight. Two terrorists were standing in the front side and the other two were standing on the back side.
In no time, Neerja Bhanot the senior flight purser informed the cockpit and told Captain and its crew member to flee the aircraft. Captain, Co-Pilot, and whole cockpit crew left the aircraft immediately. Except Neerja, all other air hostesses were tied up with the ropes. Neerja was used as a communicator between terrorist and airlines. There were more than 350 passenger’s in the plane. To scare the people in the plane they even shot dead a Person of Indian Origin named Rakesh Kumar and threw him out of the plane. Then they started collecting our passports. But somehow Neerja hid some passports of American Citizens under the seats.
They kept on shouting and screaming in some Arabic language and kept on firing shots in the air. After sometime in Afternoon they offered us Sandwiches, but who on earth can eat food in such a difficult situation. In the evening, they allowed everyone to go for toilet one by one by crawling on floor and hands locked on the head. I still remember, exactly after 17 hours of hijacking the fuel went out and due to it the generator of the plane went off, which led to darkness in the plane. Lights went off and that made terrorist panic and then they started throwing grenades and started firing aggressively at passengers.
I saw many people die in front of my eyes. My own group director and another girl from the group died there. They were shot dead. I was in the back part near the emergency exit. I tried to open the emergency exit door, but at first try, I was not able to open it. At the second try, it opened but at the same time, I was shot with a grenade in my left eye. And in a moment, a yellow colored slider opened and I was down to the ground. After that I was taken to the terminal by the army and was later shifted to hospital. I was given a minor treatment at Karachi Hospital. After 48 hours our Indian Airlines flight had come to take all Indian’s back to the country. I was then taken to Jaslok Hospital Mumbai but my eye treatment couldn’t be done there, so I was taken to Chicago(USA) for treatment, but they too couldn’t save my left eye. It was a very bad day for humanity in our history. That day nobody saw any religion, cast, or creed in each other. That day we saw each other as humans and wanted to help each others and save each others lives. It’s as simple as that in the end.”