How Far Did She Fall? The Amazing Story of Vesna Vulović
This blog post started, as so many do, over a general conversation at the pub. We were actually talking about Felix Baumbartner, the man who jumped from the edge of space last year and made numerous records, including the highest freefall ever.
I remembered there was a woman who held the record for the longest freefall without a parachute, who fell for 33,000 feet and survived. Funnily enough, I could remember the distance but not her name or how exactly she’d managed to survive this unbelievable fall from an aircraft. We had an amusing round of guesses (“She fell into jungle canopy which broke her fall in stages?” “She landed in very soft powdery snow?”) and when I got home, I looked it up.
Her name was Vesna Vulović and she was a flight attendant on JAT Yugoslave Airlines Flight 367, en route from Stockholm to Belgrade on the 26th of January in 1972. The DC-9 broke up midflight at 33,000 feet (10,160 metres) and crashed into a wooded area in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). Amazingly, Vesna Vulović was discovered alive in the wreckage, pinned down by a food cart.
A German man, upon arriving at the crash site, found all of the plane’s passengers dead, save one. Vesna was lying half outside of the plane, with another crew member’s body on top of her, and a serving cart pinned against her spine. The man had been a medic in the second world war, and did what he could for her until further help arrived.
At the hospital, her parents were told that although there was still life in her body, she would not survive. Her skull was broken and hemorrhaging, both of her legs were broken, and she had three crushed vertebrae. But three days later, she awoke from her coma, and asked for a cigarette.
Vulović has no memory of the crash. She told interviewers that she was not scheduled to be on the flight that day but her schedule was mixed up with another stewardess named Vesna and she was pleased to take the chance to fly to Denmark.
The official accident report by the Czechoslovak Investigation Commission determined that a bomb on board exploded in the front baggage compartment which broke the aircraft in half.
The beginning of destruction of the aircraft was in the altitude of 10050 m, which is testified by a sudden cutting off the function of the flight recorder and the voice-recorder. The cause was explosion of an explosive, which was enveloped in an ignition charge. Composition of the explosive and ignition charge has been determined. The explosive with ignition charge was placed in a suitcase of brown-red colour, ignited by an exploder /electric/, timed probably by an alarmclockwork, on which traces of the explosives were found. Traces on the frame of a black coloured trunk of the size 45 x 70 cm testify, that inside was placed the brow-red suitcase containing the explosive with ignition charge and the timing device. All this was packed with newprint and rags.
However, no one ever took credit for what was apparently a terrorist attack. The authorities blamed a Croatian nationalist group but no arrests were ever made.
There was another odd anomaly: officials explained that Vulović survived because she was in the rear of the aircraft but she stated in interviews that she was discovered in “the middle part of the plane”. She has no recollections of the crash at all. She told reporters that the last thing she remembered before waking up in hospital was greeting passengers as they boarded the plane.
It’s actually not at all clear how she survived the fall. The investigation said it was because she was away from the blast in the back, but Vulović and eyewitnesses deny this. News reports at the time stated that the food cart pinning her into place acted as a safety belt, keeping her safely protected by the aircraft fuselage during the impact. Vulović said she was told that it might have been her low blood pressure which saved her by causing her to pass out before her heart could burst.
But here’s the oddity that caught my eye. In the first paragraph of her Wikipedia entry and every news article about her, it says that she is in the Guinness Book of Records for surviving the highest fall without a parachute.
But she isn’t. There’s no reference to Vesna Vulović at all and the category simply doesn’t exist. I soon discovered that the record was taken off the books in 2009, when a representative of Guinness World Records said, “It seems that at the time Guinness was duped by this swindle just like the rest of the media”.
Two investigative journalists, Peter Hornung-Andersen and Pavel Theiner, published a shocking exposé of the report, saying that the aircraft was not the victim of a terrorist attack at all but was shot down by Czechoslovakian Mig fighter jet at low level.
“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,” he said.
“The Czechoslovak secret police managed to spread this wild tale throughout the world,” he added. “No doubts have ever been expressed regarding the fall. The story was so good and so beautiful that no one thought to ask any questions.” The Yugoslav secret police also helped to uphold that version of the story, he said. Black boxes were never found.
The investigation, partially based on “secret documents from the Czech civil aviation authority”, claimed that the aircraft had an emergency situation and descended unexpectedly, without radio communication. This brought the aircraft close to a sensitive military area, where it was perceived as a threat and shot down by Czech aircraft. The crash debris was spread over a small area, which they cited as further proof that the aircraft disintegrated at low level, probably around 800 meters (2,600 feet) above the ground. Eyewitnesses from a village near the crash site said they saw the aircraft intact below the clouds and some stated that they heard a second aircraft directly before the crash.
The Czech Civilian Aviation Authority referred to the report as “speculation” and stated that they would not comment on the detail.
Last year, exactly 40 years after the incident, Czech magazine Technet wrote about the incident and referred to the report as a conspiracy theory. The article cited a military expert who argued that there where 150-200 people involved in the investigation and it would be impossible to cover up such an event. Anti-aircraft missiles would have been seen on radar and furthermore, it would have been impossible, she said, to hide the evidence of the missiles in the wreckage of the crash.
“Everything indicates that we can reject the theory of anti-aircraft missiles to shoot down the cash system of NAD. Investigative teams conclusions are logical. Investigation could not be manipulated because it involved members of the Yugoslav Party and independent professionals.”
Vulović has said in interview that she does not believe the conspiracy theory but added that as she does not recall the crash, she can’t shed any light on the matter.
As it happens, it makes no difference to her fall: she would have reached terminal velocity after falling 450 m (1,500 feet), so whether she fell from the sky at 33,000 feet or 2,600 feet, the impact was the same. Although she may have lost her place in the Guinness Book of World Records, her free fall is still amazing.
Added January 2016
Tommy Mardell, who took the above photograph and many more photographs, including more great portraits of Vulović, contacted me about this post. He told me that he took the photograph in 1972 at Belgrade airport. He clearly thinks highly of Vulović. She was, he said, offered a million dollar contract for a Hollywood movie and many other offers to sell her story, but she said no to all of them. After the accident, she never flew again. She is divorced now, he told me, and living alone in Belgrade.
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