Too good to be true? Miracle woman who survived '33,000ft fall'

Forty years after a bomb on a Yugoslav jet, the official account is still being called into question

Belgrade

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.

Click HERE to view graphic

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: IT Infrastructure Engineer

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is looking to find a...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Manager / Technical Executive

£25000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity exists ...

Recruitment Genius: IT Engineer

£21000 - £23600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Purchase Ledger & Arrears Supervisor

£22000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are an experienced super...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss