Vesna Vulović, c. 1971
3 January 1950|
Belgrade, PR Serbia, FPR Yugoslavia
|Died||23 December 2016
Vesna Vulović (Serbian Cyrillic: Весна Вуловић; pronounced [ˈʋeːsna ˈʋuːlɔʋit͡ɕ]; 3 January 1950 – 23 December 2016) was a Serbian flight attendant. She holds the Guinness world record for surviving the highest fall without a parachute: 10,160 metres (33,330 ft). Her fall took place after an explosion tore through the baggage compartment of JAT Flight 367 on 26 January 1972, causing it to crash near Srbská Kamenice, Czechoslovakia. She was the sole survivor of the crash, which air safety investigators attributed to a briefcase bomb. The Yugoslav authorities suspected that Croatian nationalists were to blame, but no one was ever arrested.
Vulović was in a coma for ten days after the crash and spent several months in the hospital recovering. She suffered a fractured skull, three broken vertebrae, two broken legs, several broken ribs and a fractured pelvis. Her injuries resulted in her being temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. She went on to make an almost complete recovery, but continued to walk with a limp. Vulović maintained that she had no memory of the incident and thus had no qualms about flying in the aftermath of the crash. Despite her willingness to resume working as a flight attendant, JAT decided to give her a desk job negotiating freight contracts. The airline apparently felt that her presence on flights would attract too much publicity. Vulović became a celebrity in Yugoslavia and was deemed a national hero.
In 1985, The Guinness Book of World Records recognized Vulović as the world record holder for surviving the highest fall without a parachute. She was fired from JAT in 1990 after taking part in anti-government protests, but avoided arrest because the government was concerned about the negative publicity that her imprisonment would bring. She continued her work as a pro-democracy activist until the Socialist Party of Serbia was ousted from power during the Bulldozer Revolution of October 2000. Vulović later campaigned on behalf of the Democratic Party of Serbia, advocating Serbia's entry into the European Union. The final years of her life were spent in seclusion and she continued to struggle with survivor's guilt. Having divorced, she lived alone in her Belgrade apartment on a small pension until her death in 2016.
Vesna Vulović was born in Belgrade on 3 January 1950. Her father was a businessman and her mother was a fitness instructor. Driven by her love of The Beatles, Vulović travelled to the United Kingdom after completing her first year of university, hoping to improve her English-language skills. Upon returning to Belgrade, she decided to become a flight attendant after seeing one of her friends in a flight attendant's uniform. "She looked so nice and had just been to London for the day," Vulović recalled. "I thought, 'Why shouldn't I be an air hostess? I could go to London once a month'." She joined JAT Airways, Yugoslavia's national flag carrier and largest airline, in 1971.
JAT Flight 367
The secondary crew of JAT Flight 367, flying from Stockholm to Belgrade with stopovers in Copenhagen and Zagreb, arrived in Denmark on the morning of 25 January 1972. According to Vulović, she was not scheduled to be on Flight 367 and JAT had confused her for another flight attendant also named Vesna. Nevertheless, Vulović says she was excited to travel to Denmark because it was her first time visiting the country. The crew had the entire afternoon and the following morning to themselves. Vulović wished to go sightseeing but her colleagues insisted that they go shopping. "Everybody wanted to buy something for his or her family," she recalled. "So I had to go shopping with them. They seemed to know that they would die. They didn't talk about it, but I saw ... I felt for them. And the captain was locked in his room for 24 hours. He didn't want to go out at all. In the morning, during breakfast, the co-pilot was talking about his son and daughter as if nobody else had a son or daughter."
Flight 367 departed from Stockholm Arlanda Airport at 1:30 p.m. on 26 January. The aircraft, a McDonnell Douglas DC-9, landed at Copenhagen Airport at 2:30 p.m., where it was taken over by Vulović and her colleagues. "As it was late, we were in the terminal and saw it park," Vulović said. "I saw all the passengers and crew deplane. One man seemed terribly annoyed. It was not only me that noticed him either. Other crew members saw him, as did the station manager in Copenhagen. I think it was the man who put the bomb in the baggage. I think he had checked in a bag in Stockholm, got off in Copenhagen and never re-boarded the flight." Flight 367 departed from Copenhagen Airport at 3:15 p.m. At 4:01 p.m., an explosion tore through the DC-9's baggage compartment. The explosion caused the aircraft to break apart mid-air over the Czechoslovak village of Srbská Kamenice. Vulović was the only one of the 28 passengers and crew to survive the crash. She was discovered by a villager named Bruno Honke, who heard her screaming amid the wreckage. Her turquoise uniform was covered in blood and her 3-inch (76 mm) stiletto heels had been torn off by the force of the impact. Honke had been a medic during World War II and was able to keep her alive until rescuers arrived at the scene.
The Yugoslav authorities suspected that Croatian nationalists were to blame for bringing down the aircraft. Later that day, a bomb exploded aboard a train travelling from Vienna to Zagreb, injuring six. A man, describing himself as a Croatian nationalist, called the Swedish newspaper Kvällsposten the following day and claimed responsibility for the bombing of Flight 367. No arrests were ever made. The Czechoslovak Civil Aviation Authority later attributed the explosion to a briefcase bomb.
Paralysis and recovery
Vulović was in a coma for ten days after the crash. She sustained severe brain damage, having fractured her skull and then hemorrhaged. In addition, she suffered two broken legs and three broken vertebrae, one of which was crushed completely. Her pelvis was fractured and several ribs broken. Her injuries resulted in her being temporarily paralyzed below the waist. She had total amnesia from the hour preceding her fall until one month afterwards. Vulović's parents told her that she first learned of the crash about two weeks after it occurred. She fainted upon being shown a newspaper headline by her doctor and had to be tranquilized. The last thing that Vulović could remember from before the crash was greeting passengers as they boarded. The next thing she remembered was seeing her parents in her hospital room about one month later.
Vulović underwent treatment in a Prague hospital until 12 March 1972, after which she was flown to Belgrade. She was offered a hypnotic injection to help her sleep during the flight back to Yugoslavia, but declined, explaining that she was not afraid of flying because she had no memory of the crash. In Belgrade, Vulović's hospital room was placed under 24-hour police protection because the authorities feared that the perpetrators of the bombing would want to kill her. The guards changed shifts every six hours, and no one was allowed in to see her except for her parents and doctors. Her hospitalization in Belgrade lasted until June 1972, after which she travelled to Montenegro to recuperate at a seaside resort, where her doctors visited her every two or three days. Vulović underwent several operations to restore her movement. At first, she could only move her left leg, and one month thereafter, she was once again able to move her right. Within ten months of her fall, Vulović had regained the ability to walk, but continued to limp for the rest of her life, her spine permanently twisted by the fall. "Nobody ever expected me to live this long," she recounted. Vulović attributed her recovery to her "Serbian stubbornness" and "a childhood diet that included chocolate, spinach, and fish oil."
Air safety investigators attributed Vulović's survival to her being trapped by a food cart in the DC-9's fuselage as it broke away from the rest of the aircraft and plummeted towards the ground. When the cabin depressurized, the passengers and other flight crew were sucked out of the aircraft and fell to their deaths. Investigators believed that the fuselage, with Vulović pinned inside, landed at an angle in a heavily wooded and snow-covered mountainside, which cushioned the impact. Vulović disputed the assertion that she was discovered in the aircraft's fuselage on the basis of her conversations with Honke. "The man who found me ... told me that I was in the middle part of the plane," she said. "I was found with my head down and my colleague on top of me. One part of my body with my leg was in the plane and my head was out of the plane. A catering trolley was pinned against my spine and kept me in the plane." Vulović's physicians concluded that her history of low blood pressure caused her to pass out quickly after the cabin depressurized and kept her heart from bursting on impact. Vulović said that she was aware of her low blood pressure before applying to become a flight attendant and knew that it would result in her failing her medical examination, but she drank an exorbitant amount of coffee beforehand and was accepted.
In September 1972, Vulović expressed willingness to resume working as a flight attendant. The airline apparently felt that her presence on flights would attract too much publicity and instead gave her a desk job negotiating freight contracts. Vulović was celebrated as a national hero and decorated by Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito. The Serbian folk singer Miroslav Ilić recorded a song in her honour, titled Vesna stjuardesa ("Vesna the Stewardess"). She continued to fly regularly and stated that fellow passengers were surprised to see her on flights. "People always want to sit next to me on the plane," she remarked.
Vulović married in 1977. Although she was advised by physicians that her fall would not have an adverse effect on her reproductive function, Vulović experienced an ectopic pregnancy that nearly proved fatal and was never able to have children. In 1985, The Guinness Book of World Records recognized her as the world record holder for surviving the highest fall without a parachute: 10,160 metres (33,330 ft). She received the recognition at a London gala from Beatles frontman Paul McCartney. In 1990, Vulović was fired from JAT for speaking out against Serbian statesman Slobodan Milošević and taking part in anti-government protests, but avoided arrest because the government was concerned about the negative publicity that her imprisonment would bring. Shortly thereafter, she and her husband divorced. She continued taking part in anti-government demonstrations throughout the 1990s. When Milošević and his Socialist Party of Serbia were ousted in the Bulldozer Revolution of October 2000, Vulović was among a number of celebrities who took to the balcony of Belgrade's city hall to make victory addresses. She later campaigned on behalf of the Democratic Party of Serbia and advocated for Serbia's entry into the European Union, which she believed would bring economic prosperity.
Deteriorating health and death
Vulović told reporters that she did not think of her fall every day, but admitted to struggling with survivor's guilt. "Whenever I think of the accident, I have a prevailing, grave feeling of guilt for surviving it and I cry ... Then I think maybe I should not have survived at all." Vulović declined therapy to help her cope with her experiences and instead turned to religion, becoming a devout Orthodox Christian. She stated that her ordeal had turned her into an optimist. "If you can survive what I survived," she said, "you can survive anything."
In 2005, Vulović's fall was recreated by the American television program MythBusters, which concluded that surviving such a plunge was unlikely but plausible. Four years later, Peter Hornung-Andersen and Pavel Theiner, two Prague-based journalists, claimed that Flight 367 had been mistaken for an enemy aircraft and shot down by the Czechoslovak Air Force at an altitude of 800 metres (2,600 ft). The two claimed that the Czechoslovak State Security had conjured up Vulović's record fall as part of a cover-up. They hypothesized that the call received by the Kvällsposten, claiming responsibility for the aircraft's downing, was a hoax. The Czech Civil Aviation Authority dismissed the journalists' claim, calling it a conspiracy theory. Hornung-Andersen conceded that the pair's evidence was only circumstantial. Vulović said that she was aware of the journalists' claims, but stated that because she had no memory of the event, she could not confirm or deny the allegations. Guinness World Records continues to list her as the record-holder for surviving the highest fall without a parachute.
In the last years of her life, Vulović lived on a pension of €300 per month in her dilapidated Belgrade apartment. "I don't know know what to say when people say I was lucky ... life is so hard today," she remarked. Vulović said she was "tired" of discussing her fall. She only occasionally granted interviews and declined numerous requests, most notably from Oprah Winfrey and the BBC. Vulović's deteriorating health prevented her from taking part in annual commemorations at Srbská Kamenice, which she had previously attended for many years. In December 2016, Vulović's friends became concerned for her well-being after she abruptly stopped answering her telephone. On 23 December, locksmiths discovered Vulović's lifeless body in her apartment after forcing open the door. Vulović's friends said that she had struggled with heart ailments in the years leading up to her death. She was buried in Belgrade's New Cemetery on 27 December.
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