Pakistani Naila Nazir was two months into a new career as an airline hostess, and merely 19 years old, when she suddenly found herself plunged into a crisis. She was hijacked for 13 days along with more than 100 passengers aboard a domestic Pakistan International Airline flight. For her courage during that 1981 ordeal, Naila recently was honored in a ceremony at the Copley Plaza, where she received the Flight Safety Foundation Heroism Award.
During the hijacking, the longest in history up to that date, the three hijackers threatened to blow up the plane, fatally shot a passenger assigned to the Pakistani Embassy in Tehran, and threatened to shoot a number of other passengers. Yet when they offered Naila the opportunity to leave the Boeing 720 with the other women and children, she opted to stay aboard.
In an interview, Naila spoke in strained English of her experience. ``I'm loyal to my airline, and that was my Pakistani passengers, and I want to be with them if they are in trouble.''
She explained that her undaunting loyalty was attributable to her upbringing. Very early on her mother had instilled values of caring both for family and for humanity.
``My mother is a very religious woman, and she brought [up] all of us four sisters. I've seen her most of her life, she's struggled for herself.
``She always told me to help people that were in trouble. That was the only reason,'' Naila said.
Although she had never dealt with a crisis of such proportions before, there was little doubt on Naila's part that she belonged with the passengers on the flight. She reassured them of their imminent release, served them meals, and aided the sick. And, she says, she prayed.
``I am a religious person. We prayed a lot. Everybody was praying during the hijacking -- the passengers and everybody. We prayed that God, that He's the only one who can help us.''
Even when the other stewardess left the plane due to illness after seven days, Naila stayed on. The most difficult moment was when the hijackers shot one passenger on board, she said in a voice tinged with sadness. ``Everybody was crying at that time.''
Yet there were moments of inspiration also. Of particular impact for her was the courage and innocence of the children on board. ``They were never afraid of anybody,'' she said. ``You can't stop them [from moving around].''
Under orders from the hijackers, the plane -- scheduled to fly from Karachi, Pakistan, to Peshawar -- was routed to Kabul, Afghanistan. Eventually the plane flew to Damascus, Syria, where the passengers were exchanged for 54 political prisoners. (The hijackers were followers of the late Pakistani Premier Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and members of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party.)
Calm and poised in her turquoise sari splayed with petite flowers, Naila explained in a gentle manner, ``I never thought I wanted to be an airline hostess.''
Then, touching her neatly braided hair, she began to laugh. ``It was just by chance. A few friends of mine, we were just in school.'' They heard about the airline openings and applied.
``A few of us were selected,'' said Naila, who lives in a country where until recently it was unusual for women to hold jobs other than teaching.
At the Copley Plaza ceremony, 400 people gave her a standing ovation after the presentation of the citation noted her ``valorous conduct under adverse mental and physical conditions during the extraordinary circumstances of an aircraft hijacking. . . . Her conduct was extremely brave, exemplary, and beyond the call of duty.'' Naila had also received two awards from her own country in 1983.
The Heroism Award was established in 1968 by Graviner Ltd., a department of Allegheny International, for the ``recognition of valorous acts by civil aircraft flight crew'' that ``resulted in the saving of lives and-or valuable property.''
Last year two helicopter pilots received the award for jeopardizing their lives under adverse weather conditions to rescue over 20 people stranded on an oil rig in Alaska.