Vesna Vulovic, stewardess who survived 33,000ft fall, dies

  • Published
Vesna Vulovic, an ex-air stewardess, and survivor of a fall from 10,000 metres when in 1972 her plane was blown up in mid-fight by a bombImage source, AP
Image caption,
Vulovic's record fall gained her celebrity status in her home country

Vesna Vulovic, an air stewardess who survived the highest ever fall by a human being after her plane broke up at 33,000ft (10,000m), has died aged 66.

State TV in Vulovic's home country of Serbia said she was found dead in her apartment in Belgrade. The cause of death was not immediately known.

Vulovic was working on a Yugoslav Airlines Douglas DC-9 on 26 Jan 1972 when a suspected bomb brought the plane down among mountains in Czechoslovakia.

All 27 other passengers and crew died.

According to investigators, Vulovic was trapped by a food cart in the plane's tail section as it plummeted to earth in freezing temperatures.

The tail landed in a heavily wooded and snow-blanketed part of a mountainside, which was thought to have cushioned the impact.

Vulovic was rescued by Bruno Honke, a woodsman who heard her screaming in the dark while the debris came down around them.

It was suspected that a bomb was planted inside the jet during a stopover in Copenhagen, Denmark, but nothing was ever proven and no arrests were made.

Image source, CC Clipperarctic
Image caption,
A Yugoslav Airlines DC-9 identical to the one blown up in 1972

After arriving in hospital, Vulovic fell into a coma for 10 days. She had a fractured skull, two crushed vertebrae and she had broken her pelvis, several ribs and both legs.

"I was broken, and the doctors put me back together again," she told the New York Times in 2008. "Nobody ever expected me to live this long."

The fall gained Vulovic a place in the Guinness Book of Records of 1985 for the highest fall survived without a parachute.

The stewardess was temporarily paralysed from the waist down by the fall but in time she made a near-full recovery and returned to work for the airline in a desk job.

She never regained any memory of the accident or of her rescue, she said, and she continued to fly as a passenger. "People always want to sit next to me on the plane," she said.

The spectacular survival story won Vulovic celebrity status in Serbia, where she channelled her fame into campaigning for political causes.

She was fired from her job at the airline in 1990 after taking part in protests against President Slobodan Milosevic but avoided arrest. She continued for two more decades to fight against nationalism.

"I am like a cat, I have had nine lives," she told the New York Times. "But if nationalist forces in this country prevail, my heart will burst."