Vesna Vulovic: The Flight Attendant Who Fell 6 Miles And Lived
Vesna Vulovic. Source: Pinterest
Vesna Vulovic, a flight attendant for JAT Yugoslav Airlines in 1972, set a Guinness world record when she fell some 33,000 feet and lived. Vulovic's odds-defying plunge, which happened following an explosion of the DC-9 she was flying in, is one of the most remarkable accident-survival stories of all time, and made her a national hero in Yugoslavia. Vulovic, who died in 2016, suffered many broken bones in the crash, and was in a coma for days afterward. Therein lies a curious detail -- though she recovered physically, she was left with total amnesia about the incident, remembering nothing about the time between boarding the flight and waking up in a hospital bed. Her recollection of the details of the explosion and six-mile fall were lost.
That is, if there even was a six-mile fall.
Everyone who’s ever flown on a plane or even seen Castaway has run through the worst-case scenario of a plane crash in their heads. Unfortunately, an airborne accident leaves little room for “Macgyver” like moves. We humans have proven capable of completely unbelievable feats. But falling six miles after your plane explodes sounds more like a superhero origin story than real life. However, that is the real-life story of Vesna Vulovic, a Serbian flight attendant who survived the truly unthinkable.
The Ill-Fated Flight JAT 367
On January 26th, 1972, Vesna Vulovic was called into work to replace another flight attendant, ironically also named Vesna, on that fateful flight. The trip was set to leave Copenhagen and land in Belgrade. Tragically, an hour into the flight their McDonnell Douglas DC-9 exploded over the Czechoslovakian village of Srbska Kamenice. It is believed that the other passengers and crew were sucked out into the atmosphere as the plane fell apart.
Unlike the other members of the flight, Vulovic remained in the broken fuselage, falling 33,000 feet completely unconscious. Investigators point to a food trolley as Vulovic’s unlikely savior. The heavy trolley wedged her in, keeping her from being ripped out into subzero temperatures thousands of feet above the ground.
As the blessed flight attendant put it, "I am like a cat ... I have had nine lives.” Of course, the landing did not happen lightly. While trees and dense snow helped lighten the crash, Vulovic still suffered hellacious injuries. She fractured her skull, broke her legs, suffered three broken vertebrae, and was temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. She had no memory of the explosion or the crash. “The first thing I remember is seeing my parents in the hospital. I was talking to them and asking them why they were with me in Slovenia. I thought I was in Slovenia, as I had just visited Ljubljana before going to Copenhagen.”
Controversy Surrounding The Accident
The official story as reported by Czechoslovakian investigators and accepted by Yugoslavian authorities laid the blame at the feet of terrorists planting a suitcase bomb during the plane’s layover in Copenhagen. However, no arrests were made and nothing was ever proven. In 2009, two reporters researched the catastrophe for over a year and came to the conclusion that the official report was a complete fabrication by Communist authorities.
According to Peter Hornung and Pavel Theiner, "It is extremely probable that the aircraft was shot down by mistake by the Czechoslovak air force, and in order to cover it up the secret police conceived the record plunge." Evidence to support their claims comes in a few forms.
First, the damage to the craft doesn’t support a fall from over 33,000 feet. Second, Vulovic’s flight was forced to divert off course due to weather conditions, which brought them very close to a nuclear weapons facility. Third, eye witness reports claim a military jet was also in the area at the time of the crash. Fourth, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and his East German counterpart, Erich Honecker, were in the air at the time of the crash, supporting the theory that Vulovic’s flight was deemed a threat to the leaders. Last, the black box was mysteriously never found.
All these points cast reasonable doubt on the official version of events, but they don't disprove it.
The World Was A Different Place
Vulovic's story is wrapped up in the politics of Eastern Europe, as it involves Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia -- two countries that no longer exist. Both nations broke away from Austria Hungary in 1918, and were amalgams of distinct smaller states. Following World War II, both Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were communist or socialist nations, although Czechoslovakia was part of the Eastern Bloc and under the sway of the Soviet Union. Yugoslavia, while remaining socialist, rejected Soviet domination.
Yugoslavia had inherent problems, mainly due to the competing nationalities and ethnic groups within its borders. The country contained Croats, Slovenes, Serbs, Montenegrins, Macedonians and Bosnians. Croatian Nationalists committed numerous acts of terrorism against Yugoslavia in the decades following World War II.
It's conceivable that Croatian nationalists would plant a bomb on a plane in 1972 -- it's not a far-fetched story. It's the kind of thing they did to try to advance their cause. But the bomb explanation also served the governments of both countries; Yugoslavia could blame Croatian nationalists, while Czechoslovakia wouldn't have to own up to shooting the plane down -- if, indeed, that's what happened.
Vulovic Was A Celebrity, But Lived A Quiet Life
Vulovic mostly recovered from her horrifying ordeal but walked with a limp as a result of the crash. In 2008, she told the New York Times, “I was broken and the doctors put me back together again. Nobody ever expected me to live this long.” Amazingly, she wanted her old job back but was given a desk job instead. As she saw it, “They didn’t want me because they didn’t want so much publicity about the accident.” The steely woman reported flying without fear for years after. She had only been working for the airline for 8 months before the accident.
Eighteen years after taking the desk job, Vulovic was forced into retirement by the airline for urging her co-workers not to vote for Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian nationalist and president dubbed the “Butcher of the Balkans.” Despite receiving awards from the Guinness Book of World Records and Josip Tito, Yugoslavia’s Communist leader, she kept away from the spotlight.
She also never considered herself lucky. “If I were lucky, I would never had this accident, and my mother and father would be alive,” she said. “The accident ruined their lives, too. Maybe I was born in the wrong place. Maybe it was a bad place.”
Tags: Air Travel In The 1970s | Disasters | Flight Attendants | Remember This?... | The Cold War | Vesna Vulovic
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