Musician Nayan Pancholi was one of the passengers of the Pan Am 73 flight. He was lucky enough to survive the hijack but ended up losing his one eye because of the grenade explosion. He shared the story of Neerja Bhanot and that horrific day with Pray Bavishi of Humans of Amdavad.
It was 5th September 1986. Our tickets got confirmed at the last moment in Pan-Am Flight-73, which was headed from Mumbai to New York via Karachi and Frankfurt. We were a group of singers and music composers from Ahmedabad who were going to perform in different cities of USA. 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 were dropped off. 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 seated in economy class at the back side near 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 hands locked above their head. I just can’t forget that sight. Two terrorist were standing in the front 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 it’s crew member to flee the aircraft. Captain, Co-Pilot and whole cockpit crew had left the aircraft. Except Neerja, all other air hostesses were tied up with the ropes. Neerja was used as communicator between terrorist and airlines. There were more than 350 passengers 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 the American citizens under the seats. They kept on shouting and screaming in some Arabic language and kept on firing shots in air. After sometime in the 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 the floor and hands locked behind the head. I still remember, exactly after 17 hours of hijacking the fuel went out and due to it the generator of plane went off, which lead to darkness in the plane. Lights went off and that made terrorist panic and then they started firing aggressively, they started throwing grenades and started firing 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 emergency exit. I tried to open the emergency exit door, but at first try it couldn’t open. 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 army and was later shifted to the 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. This incident has left an unsaid and unexpressed effect on me. 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 other and save each others lives. It’s as simple as that in end.