January 26, 1972
Srbská Kamenice, Czechoslovakia
A airliner carrying 28 people explodes mid-air, leaving only 22-year-old flight attendant Vesna Vulović alive
About an hour after the DC-9 airplane took off from Copenhagen to Belgrade, it was broken apart by an explosion. It is believed many of those aboard the aircraft were sucked out of the vessel and into the frigid wilderness where, according to The New York Times, the temperatures dipped to -60ºF (-51ºC).
The airliner crashed into a snowy hill dotted with large trees; the forest, snow, and angle of the hill helped to cushion the fall of the aircraft and lessened any additional damage. A man who lived in a nearby village, and who had served in World War II as a medic, quickly arrived at the scene. He found Vulović barefoot, covered in blood, and screaming. She was pinned inside a portion of the fuselage by a food cart, and was partially covered by the body of one of her colleagues.
While Vulović was the only survivor of the crash, she still suffered a fractured skull, two broken legs, and three broken vertebrae. She was hospitalized for 16 months, spent 27 days in a coma, and was temporarily paralyzed from the incident. Vulović also had no memories of the day of the crash after boarding the flight.
“Everybody thinks I am lucky, but they are mistaken,” Vulović said during an interview. “If I were lucky I would never have had this accident. To die is pure destiny – in a plane or in a car or in the street. The funny thing is that, if you have to die the easiest way to do so is in a plane. So that’s it, it was not my day for dying.”
Soon after the incident, Czech authorities declared a briefcase carrying explosives had been detonated aboard the DC-9 by Croatian nationalists. In 1985, the Guinness Book of World Records declared Vulović to be the record-holder of the highest surviving fall without a parachute, recording the height to have been 10,160 meters (33,333 feet). For comparison, Mount Everest stands at 8,849 meters.
In 2009, two investigative journalists from Prague concluded the aircraft had been mistakenly shot down by the Czechoslovak Air Force at a much lower altitude of 800 meters (2,625 feet), after reviewing Czech civil aviation authority documents. “The Czechoslovak secret police managed to spread this wild tale throughout the world,” journalist Peter Hornung stated. “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 Guinness World Records responded to this assessment from the journalists by noting, “One of the journalists did however concede that the evidence was only circumstantial.” Officially, Vulović’s record remains intact within the Guinness World Records. She had stated that, should her record proved to be untrue, she would not be disappointed.
Vulović died in 2016 at the age of 77.
“Highest fall survived without parachute.” Guinness World Records.
Pearson, Nick. “Vesna Vulovic: The flight attendant who fell 10km in a plane bombing and survived.” 9 News. October 4, 2019. Accessed: January 26, 2021. https://www.9news.com.au/world/vesna-vulovic-flight-attendant–fell-10km-plane-bombing-survival-no-parachute-serbia-news/7a369341-a6f1-41b5-9a66-9bf6dd9ffb34
Sandomir, Richard. “Vespa Vulovic, Flight Attendant Who Survived Jetliner Blast, Dies at 66.” The New York Times. December 28, 2016
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Bilefsky, Dan. “Serbia’s Most Famous Survivor Fears That Recent History Will Repeat Itself.” The New York Times. April 26, 2008