Vesna Vulović (1950–2016) was a Serbian flight attendant known for surviving a catastrophic airplane crash. On January 26, 1972, she miraculously survived a fall from 33,000 feet without a parachute, following an explosion aboard JAT Flight 367. This event marked her entry into the annals of aviation history due to the extraordinary nature of her survival.
Vulović was born in Belgrade, Serbia, in 1950. Before joining the aviation industry, she had a life similar to many young women in her country. Her decision to become a flight attendant was driven by her love for travel and adventure. She joined JAT, the national airline of Yugoslavia, where she began her career as a flight attendant, a role that promised her the excitement of international travel.
The Fateful Flight: JAT Flight 367
On January 25, 1972, Vesna Vulović, as a member of the secondary crew, arrived in Denmark to join JAT Flight 367. This assignment was not originally scheduled for her; instead, it was due to a mix-up with another flight attendant who shared her first name. Such incidents were not uncommon in the airline industry, where scheduling errors could occasionally lead to crew changes.
The crew, including Vulović, had a full day in Denmark before their flight. This time was spent primarily in shopping, a common leisure activity for crews during layovers. Despite being an opportunity for relaxation and exploration, the atmosphere among the crew members was notably somber. This mood was unusual, as layovers typically provided a chance for crew members to unwind. Some of the crew appeared introspective, possibly reflecting personal thoughts or the general stress of their demanding profession.
On January 26, Flight 367, which Vulović was a part of, departed from Stockholm and subsequently landed in Copenhagen. During the layover at Copenhagen Airport, Vulović observed a particular passenger who caught her attention. This individual disembarked in Copenhagen and did not re-board the flight. Her recollection of the passenger’s demeanor — notably his annoyance — led her to later suspect his involvement in the subsequent explosion aboard the flight. This observation points to the heightened awareness flight crews often have regarding passenger behaviors, especially in contexts where security concerns are paramount.
The flight resumed its journey at 3:15 p.m. from Copenhagen. Approximately 46 minutes after departure, while the aircraft was cruising at an altitude of 33,000 feet, a catastrophic explosion occurred in the baggage compartment. This explosion was the primary cause of the aircraft’s breakup over Czechoslovakian territory. The nature and timing of the explosion suggest a deliberate act, likely a bombing, which aligns with the subsequent investigation’s findings pointing to a sabotage event.
The Crash and Immediate Aftermath
The aircraft disintegrated over the village of Srbská Kamenice. Vulović, still strapped to her flight attendant seat, fell approximately 33,000 feet and miraculously survived the impact. She was discovered by Bruno Honke, a local villager and former medic, who provided first aid until rescuers arrived. Despite the severity of the crash, Vulović’s survival was nothing short of miraculous, making her an instant subject of global amazement and curiosity.
Vulović sustained severe injuries, including a fractured skull, three broken vertebrae, broken legs, and multiple fractures in her pelvis. Remarkably, she was in a coma for 27 days and temporarily paralyzed from the waist down, but she fully recovered after a prolonged period of hospitalization and rehabilitation. Her recovery was as astonishing as her survival, defying medical expectations.
Investigation and Suspected Causes
The investigation into the crash of Flight 367 concluded that the explosion was caused by a briefcase bomb. Yugoslav authorities suspected Croatian nationalists to be behind the attack, though no one was ever officially charged or arrested. The context of the incident was amidst a period of political unrest and terrorism related to the Yugoslav Wars.
In the early 1990s, during the tumultuous period of the breakup of Yugoslavia, Vesna Vulović’s career at JAT, the national airline, ended abruptly. She was dismissed from her position due to her active participation in anti-government protests. These protests were a part of the larger movement against the then-authoritarian regime in Yugoslavia. Despite her high-profile status as a national hero, Vulović’s political stance led to her losing her job. However, the government refrained from arresting her, likely due to the potential international and domestic backlash considering her fame and the dramatic story of her survival.
Role in the Bulldozer Revolution
Following her dismissal, Vulović continued her engagement in political activism, particularly focusing on pro-democracy movements. Her involvement became more pronounced during the Bulldozer Revolution in October 2000. This revolution was a crucial moment in Serbian history, marking the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević’s regime. Vulović’s participation in these political upheavals showcased her commitment to democratic ideals and her willingness to fight for political change in her country.
Advocacy for European Union Integration
After the fall of the Socialist Party of Serbia, Vesna Vulović aligned herself with the Democratic Party. Her advocacy took a new direction as she campaigned for Serbia’s integration into the European Union. This shift in her focus highlighted her belief in a progressive, united Europe and the benefits it could bring to her homeland. Her support for EU integration was part of a broader vision for Serbia’s future, one that embraced democratic values and international cooperation.
Later Life and Personal Struggles
Vulović’s later years were marked by a retreat from public life. She lived a secluded life in her apartment in Belgrade. Despite her iconic status and the admiration she received globally for her miraculous survival, she faced personal challenges, including survivor guilt. This psychological condition often affects individuals who survive catastrophic events while others do not. Her struggle with this guilt was a poignant reminder of the long-lasting impact such traumatic experiences can have.
Financially, Vesna Vulović faced hardships in her final years. Living on a modest pension, her lifestyle was far removed from the global recognition she had once received. The contrast between her earlier life, marked by international fame and miraculous survival, and her later years, characterized by financial and emotional challenges, was stark. Her story during these years reflects the complexities and often-unseen struggles faced by those who survive extraordinary events.
Vesna Vulović passed away in 2016, leaving behind a legacy that was as complex as it was remarkable. From a celebrated flight attendant who survived a near-impossible fall, to a political activist and pro-democracy advocate, her life story encapsulates various facets of history, resilience, and personal transformation. Her death was not just the passing of an individual but marked the end of a narrative that spanned extraordinary events, political upheavals, and personal trials.