Her survival was hailed a miracle – the flight attendant who plunged 10,160m (33,300ft) without a parachute when an aircraft broke up above the clouds.
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But 40 years later, with doubt cast on the official version of the aeroplane's plunge to earth, Vesna Vulovic lives a secluded life, spending her days alone with only her cats for company. "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," she tells The Independent from her dilapidated flat in Belgrade.
One of the problems for Ms Vulovic, 62, is that although she survived she did not exactly live to tell the tale: any memory of the crash has gone. "I do not remember the accident at all, just my waking up in the Czech hospital the next day and asking a doctor for a cigarette," she says.
According to the official version of events, exactly 40 years ago today the Yugoslav Airlines flight JU 367, travelling from Copenhagen to Zagreb, fell into woods near Srbská Kamenice in the former Czechoslovakia, killing 23 passengers and four crew. Ms Vulovic, then 22, was the only survivor, her broken body found among the wreckage.
After a brief investigation, Yugoslav officials said separatists from a Croatian fascist movement, the Ustashi, planted the bomb. The Guinness Book of World Records gave Ms Vulovic the record for the highest fall without a parachute – 10,160m, the height the jet was allegedly cruising at.
But questions remained, with none of the Croatian anti-Yugoslav organisations ever claiming responsibility. Then three years ago, two investigative journalists, Peter Hornung and Pavel Theiner, dug out newly obtained documents from the Czech Civil Aviation Authority. They said it was likely that the jet – a McDonnell Douglas DC-9-32 – was mistaken for an enemy aircraft as it attempted an emergency landing, and was shot down only 800 metres above the ground by a MiG fighter of the Czechoslovak air force. While the Czech Civilian Aviation Authority dismissed the 2009 claims, a spokesman for Guinness World Records said: "It seems that at the time Guinness was duped by this swindle, just like the rest of the media."
For Ms Vulovic, those allegations cast a shadow over her status as a national heroine, and because of her memory loss she can shed no further light on the events of 26 January 1972. "I know about that [the new report] ... I can not say 'yes' or 'no'," Ms Vulovic said. "The last thing I remember before the accident is passengers boarding the flight in Copenhagen and nothing else until my coming out from coma at the hospital."
Now, she shares the fate of many Serbs, as the country struggles under harsh economic conditions. The formerly glamorous flight attendant dyes and cuts her own hair, and uses "five- or six-year-old mascara when people want to take my photos". "I don't know what to say when people say I was lucky ... life is so hard today," Ms Vulovic says.
But whatever the true version of events, there is little doubt she is a survivor: the crash left her concussed and her legs, pelvis and three vertebrae were broken. She was paralysed from the waist down but, after two operations, she learned to walk again just a year after the accident. "I'm like a cat, I have many lives," she says.Reuse content