In 1972, a Serbian woman set what is, perhaps, the most genuinely astonishing Guinness World Record in history. Vesna Vulovic, a flight attendant, survived a midair explosion and subsequent six mile drop. And she is now reported to have died in her Belgrade apartment last week from unknown causes.
Vulovic still holds the Guinness World Record for “highest fall without a parachute.” She was working as a flight attendant on a Yugslav Airlines Douglas DC-9 when disaster struck. About an hour into the flight, the aircraft exploded while flying over Srbska Kamenice, a Czech village. Many passengers were vacuumed into the freezing-cold atmosphere and died. Vulovic was spared, wedged into part of the fuselage by a food cart.
The food cart, despite unbelievable odds, saved her life. The fuselage, with Vulovic in it, collided with a snowy hill. The snow, and the trees growing above it, cushioned the impact enough to spare her life. She had fallen 33,333 feet.
Vulovic claimed that she wasn’t even supposed to be working the flight. She was filling in for a different flight attendant, also named Vesna.
Czech officials publicly speculated that the flight was brought down by a bomb planted by Croatian terrorists. But two Czech investigative journalists have recently challenged that story, claiming that they uncovered documents that prove the plane may have been a victim of accidental friendly fire from the Czechoslovak air force. They also claim the plane was only flying at 2,625 feet. Still.
Vulovic was found dead in her apartment. It’s still not known what, exactly, killed her. Obviously, something less spectacular than falling out of the sky.
After the crash, she had a crushed skull, three broken vertebrae and broken legs. She was also temporarily paralyzed from the waist down and was comatose for a period of time. Her recovery was long, but thankfully complete. For better or for worse, she never succeeded in remembering anything about the crash or even the preceding flight.
“The first thing I remember is seeing my parents in the hospital,” she said in a 2002 interview with Green Light Limited. “I was talking to them and asking them why they were with me in Slovenia. I thought I was in Slovenia, as I had just visited Ljubljana before going to Copenhagen.”
After about a year, she was able to walk again, although she now had a limp. She attempted to return to work as a flight attendant but the airline gave her a desk job negotiating freight contracts instead.
She was honored by Tito and lionized as a hero. A Serbian singer named Miroslav Ilic wrote “Vesna the Stewardess” about the incident.
Vulovic was the only survivor out of 28 passengers and crew on the plane.
It must have been frustrating to spend the rest of her life with everyone treating her like some kind of superhero, or like someone watched over by divine providence.
“I’m not lucky. If I were lucky I would never had this accident and my mother and father would be alive. The accident ruined their lives too.”