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October 14, 2023

The Incredible Story of Vesna Vulović, a Serbian Flight Attendant Who Fell 33,000 Feet and Survived

Vesna Vulović (1950–2016) was a Serbian flight attendant who survived the highest fall without a parachute: 10.16 kilometers (6.31 miles). She was the sole survivor after an explosion tore through the baggage compartment of JAT Flight 367 on January 26, 1972, causing it to crash near Srbská Kamenice, Czechoslovakia (now part of the Czech Republic). Air safety investigators attributed the explosion to a briefcase bomb. The Yugoslav authorities suspected that émigré Croatian nationalists were to blame, but no one was ever arrested.

Serbian stewardess Vesna Vulovic.

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 January 25, 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 said that 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.”

Vulović in the early 1970s.

Flight 367 departed from Stockholm Arlanda Airport at 1:30 p.m. on January 26. The aircraft, a McDonnell Douglas DC-9, landed at Copenhagen Airport at 2:30 p.m., whereupon Vulović and her colleagues boarded the plane. “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 over the then-Czechoslovak village of Srbská Kamenice. Vulović was the only survivor of the 28 passengers and crew. She was discovered by villager Bruno Honke, who heard her screaming amid the wreckage. Her turquoise uniform was covered in blood and her stiletto heels had been torn off by the force of the impact. Honke had been a medic during the Second World War and was able to keep Vulović alive until rescuers arrived.

An incomplete recovery, Vesna Vulovic in the hospital.

Vulović suffered a fractured skull, three vertebrae, several ribs, her pelvis and both legs.

Air safety investigators attributed Vulović’s survival to her being trapped by a food trolley 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 blown 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'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 excessive amount of coffee beforehand and was accepted.

Between 1962 and 1982, émigré Croatian nationalists carried out 128 terrorist attacks against Yugoslav civilian and military targets. Yugoslav authorities suspected that they were to blame for bringing down Flight 367. On the day of the crash, a bomb exploded aboard a train traveling 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.

JAT Flight 367 after the crash.

Wreckage of McDonnell Douglas DC-9 YU-AHT.

Following the bombing, Vulović spent days in a coma and was hospitalized for several months. She suffered a fractured skull, three broken vertebrae, broken legs, broken ribs, and a fractured pelvis. These injuries resulted in her being temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. Vulović made an almost complete recovery but continued to walk with a limp. She had no memory of the incident and had no qualms about flying in the aftermath of the crash. Despite her willingness to resume work as a flight attendant, Jat Airways (JAT) gave her a desk job negotiating freight contracts, feeling her presence on flights would attract too much publicity. Vulović became a celebrity in Yugoslavia and was deemed a national hero.

Vulović was fired from JAT in the early 1990s after taking part in anti-government protests during the breakup of Yugoslavia, but avoided arrest as 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, advocating Serbia's entry into the European Union. Her final years were spent in seclusion, and she struggled with survivor guilt. Having divorced, Vulović lived alone in her Belgrade apartment on a small pension until her death in 2016.

Vulović with Paul McCartney

Vesna Vulović in her later years.


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