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Vesna Vulovic, a former air stewardess and survivor of a 10,000-metre fall in 1972, when her plane was blown up in mid-flight by a bomb, gives an interview in Belgrade in 2008. (Marko Drobnjakovic/The Associated Press)
Vesna Vulovic, a former air stewardess and survivor of a 10,000-metre fall in 1972, when her plane was blown up in mid-flight by a bomb, gives an interview in Belgrade in 2008. (Marko Drobnjakovic/The Associated Press)

Vesna Vulovic, flight attendant who survived 1972 jetliner blast, dies at 66 Add to ...

Vesna Vulovic, a flight attendant who alone, and miraculously, survived the midair explosion of a jetliner over Czechoslovakia in 1972 after plummeting thousands of feet onto a snowy hill, was reported dead on Dec. 23 in Belgrade, Serbia. She was 66.

Serbian radio reported her death without giving a cause.

Blic, a Serbian daily newspaper, said that locksmiths discovered her body in her apartment after forcing open the door. A neighbour said she had called Ms. Vulovic’s brother after Vesna Vulovic didn’t answer her phone.

Ms. Vulovic’s improbable story began Jan. 26, 1972, in Copenhagen, where she was assigned to a Yugoslav Airlines crew for a flight to Belgrade. She recalled that she should not have been there; another flight attendant, also named Vesna, was supposed to be on the roster.

An hour into the flight, the plane, a DC-9, blew up over the Czech village of Srbska Kamenice. Although others were believed to have been sucked out of the jet into subfreezing temperatures, Ms. Vulovic remained inside part of the shattered fuselage, wedged in by a food cart, as it plunged.

Trees broke the fall of the fuselage section and snow on the hill cushioned its landing.

The Guinness Book of World Records says the plunge was from a height of 33,000 feet (more than 10,000 metres), the longest recorded fall without a parachute. The Czech authorities concluded that explosives in a suitcase had detonated and tore apart the jet.

But an investigation by two reporters in Prague in 2009 challenged that account. They concluded that the DC-9 was mistakenly shot down by the Czechoslovak Air Force at an altitude of only 800 metres, or about 2,625 feet.

On the 35th anniversary of the disaster, in 2007, Zdenko Kubik, a firefighter, recalled: “I heard a sound like that of military jets landing. I looked up to the sky and saw bodies, suitcases, chunks of the plane falling down.”

Ms. Vulovic was the only one of 28 passengers and crew members to survive – but just barely. She suffered a skull fracture and broke her legs. Three vertebrae were broken, and she was temporarily paralyzed from the waist down and in a coma for a time. She had no memory of the flight or her descent.

“The first thing I remember is seeing my parents in the hospital,” she said in 2002 in an online interview with Green Light Limited, a security-training firm. “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” – the capital city – “before going to Copenhagen.”

In less than a year, she recovered well enough to walk, but with a limp.

“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.”

She was honored by Josip Tito, Yugoslavia’s Communist leader, and celebrated as a national hero.

Miroslav Ilic, a Serbian folk singer, recorded the song Vesna the Stewardess in her honor.

Ms. Vulovic returned to work at Yugoslav Airlines in 1972, but to an office job in which she negotiated freight contracts, not as a flight attendant. She had wanted her old job back and disagreed with the airline that she was not healthy enough to resume it.

“They didn’t want me because they didn’t want so much publicity about the accident,” she told Green Light.

She continued to fly occasionally, she said, without fear.

Vesna Vulovic is believed to have been born Jan. 3, 1950, in Belgrade. She decided to become a flight attendant, she said, when she saw a friend in her Yugoslav Airlines uniform and thought, “Why shouldn’t I be an air hostess?”

She had been working for the airline for only eight months when the accident occurred.

About 18 years after she returned to work, she said, the airline forced her to retire for trying to persuade co-workers not to vote for Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian nationalist and president known as the “Butcher of the Balkans.”

In 2008, Ms. Vulovic campaigned for the Democratic Party of president Boris Tadic.

“She seems not to have lived the life of a celebrity at all and to have kept mostly to herself,” Eric Gordy, a cultural and political sociologist at University College London who studies the former Yugoslavia, said in a phone interview.

Ms. Vulovic, who had been divorced, was living on a small pension, with three cats, at her death. A brother appears to have been her only living family.

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