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Vesna Vulovic: how to survive a bombing at 33000 feet

On 26 January 1972, a JAT DC-9 en route from Copenhagen to Zagreb and Belgrade exploded 33,000 feet over Srbska-Kamenice in Czechoslovakia. Ustashe, otherwise known as the Croatian National Movement, later admitted their responsibility for the bombing that should have killed all 29 passengers and crew. Miraculously, however, there was a survivor. The body of flight attendant  Vesna Vulovic was recovered from the wreckage. Thirty years on, Philip Baum travelled to Belgrade to hear her story. In the aftermath of the 1988 Lockerbie disaster there was much morbid speculation as to whether any of the victims knew of their impending fate. Dr. William Eckert of Wichita State University believes that many might have lost consciousness because of lack of oxygen when Pan Am103 exploded at 31,000 feet but would have revived at about 15,000 to 10,000 feet, and may well have been aware of what was happening for the final third of their fall. There are indeed numerous reports of bodies having moved on the ground and one rescuer claims to have found a weak pulse in one of the bodies. Many are quick to ridicule such speculation as being little more than scaremongering. They, perhaps, have not met Vesna.

PB: Why did you choose to become a flight attendant?

VV: I finished grammar school when I was 18 and went to university to study languages. As I used to like the Beatles and sing their songs with friends, I especially enjoyed English. At the end of my first year I went to England to improve my command of the language. I initially stayed with my parent's friends in Newbury, but wanted to move to London. It was there that 1 met up with a friend who suggested we go to Stockholm. When I told my parents I was living in the Swedish capital, they thought of the drugs and the sex and told me to come home at once. Back in Belgrade, I met a friend of mine in JAT uniform. She looked so nice and had just been to London for the day! I thought, "Why shouldn't I be an air hostess? I could go to , h( London once a month." And that's how I started flying. I had only been flying eight months when the accident happened. In fact I didn't even have a permanent contract.

PB: How much focus was there in your training on security issues and the threat the airline faced?

VV: Every six months, we had to go through security training, but we never discussed Ustashe. I think my accident was the first incident of terrorism. After my accident X?ray machines were deployed at all airports in the world. Not before.

PB: Where did you join the fated flight?

VV: In Copenhagen. But I should not have been there at all, as it was a different Vesna that should have been rostered with that crew. A little mistake, however, meant that I had my first trip to Denmark. I was very happy. I had always dreamed of staying in a Sheraton Hotel, and I had a room there for one night. We arrived on 25 January.

PB: What did you do on your evening in Copenhagen?

VV: I actually had all the afternoon and all the following morning free. I wanted to see the monuments, but my colleagues had a feeling that something would happen to them. Everybody wanted to buy something for his or her family. So I had to go shopping with them. They seemed to know that they would die. They didn't talk about it, but I saw .... I felt for them. And the Captain was locked in his room for 24 hours. He didn't want to go out at all. In the morning, during breakfast, the co?pilot was talking about his son and daughter as if nobody else had a son or daughter.

PB: What are your recollections of the day of the bombing?

VV: We were waiting for the aircraft to arrive from Stockholm. As it was late, we were in the terminal and saw it park. I saw all the passengers and crew deplane. One man seemed terribly annoyed. It was not only me that noticed him either. Other crew members saw him, as did the station manager in Copenhagen. I think it was the man who put the bomb in the baggage. I think he had checked in a bag in Stockholm, got off in Copenhagen and never re-boarded the flight. The last thing I remember is boarding the plane by the rear door and seeing a few women cleaning the plane.

PB: What is your recollection of the flight itself?

VV: Nothing.

PB: So what is the next thing you recall?

VV: One month afterwards. I have amnesia from one hour before the accident until one month afterwards. The first thing I can remember is seeing my parents in the hospital. 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.

PB: What injuries had you actually sustained?

VV: The biggest injury was to my brain. I had broken my skull and then haemorrhaged. I had broken three vertebrae, one of which was crushed completely and had stopped me from being able to move my legs.

PB: So you were paralysed from the waist down?

VV: Yes, but after an operation I could move my left leg. I could not move my right leg for another month. Now I can walk.

PB: And you were in hospital in Prague untiI the 12 March?

VV: Yes, and then they transported me by plane to Belgrade. They told me that they would give me injections to help me steep on the flight. I refused. I was looking forward to flying again. You must remember that I had no memories of the accident. To this day I enjoy travelling and have no fear of flying.

PB: When were you actually told what had actually happened?

VV: They told me when I was still in Prague some two weeks after the accident. The doctor gave me a newspaper and I read it.

PB: But you say your first memory was actually one month afterwards?

VV: I can't remember being told. My parents told me later about the doctor. I was told I fainted and that they had to give me injections because I was in such shock.

PB: Was anybody ever actually arrested for the bombing?

VV: No. But they are dead now. During this last war in Croatia all the terrorists were killed according to newspaper reports. The police were worried about me after the accident as I had seen the man who may have put the bomb on the plane in Copenhagen. So, when I was in the hospital I had a police guard at my door. Every six hours they changed shift. Nobody could come in my room except my parents and doctors. Maybe they (Ustashe) wanted to kill me as the only witness.

PB: How long did it take you to recuperate?

VV: I came back to Belgrade in March. Then I stayed in hospital there until June. In July I went to a seaside hotel in Montenegro - a big company sponsored my stay. I had one month there with my therapist and my mother and my doctors came to visit me every 2 or 3 days.

PB: And what did you do then?

VV: In September I wanted to go back to work.

PB: You wanted to fly?

VV: Yes, I wanted to fly. But they said I was not healthy enough to fly. Reality was that I was healthy but they didn't want me. They didn't want me because they didn't want so much publicity about the accident. Eventually they did give me a job, but it was office-based. I was negotiating freight contracts. After 18 years I was forced to retire primarily because of my views about Slobodan Milosovic. I was trying to persuade my colleagues not to vote for him; eventually my pay was reduced.

PB: When did you become interested in politics.

VV: I've never been interested in politics. I'm only interested in helping my nation survive. Everybody in the world thinks that Serbs are fighters, and that Serbia is a bad nation. We are not like that. 1 am Serbian and proud of it. So I was always asking people not to go to war, and not to fight against Croats or Bosnians because we are all the same nation.

PB: Looking back at the incident, how do you think you survived?

VV: Nobody knows that. One of them said that I had very low blood pressure. I should never have been an air hostess in fact. I had a lot of coffee to drink before my interview, so that when I had my medical exam I passed. Maybe my low blood pressure saved me. I lost consciousness quickly and my heart did not burst.

PB: The reports say that you fell in a part of the fuselage that remained intact. Some of the reports said that you were in the back of the aircraft.

VV: No I was not in the back. The man who found me he told me that I was in the middle part of the plane. I was found with my head down and my colleague on top of me. One part of my body with my leg was in the plane and my head was out of the plane. A catering trolley was pinned against my spine and kept me in the plane. The man who found me, says I was very lucky. He was with Hitler's troops as a medic during the War. He was German. He knew how to treat me at the site of the accident.

PB: Surviving the fall gave you celebrity status. How did you cope with that?

VV: I ended up in the Guinness Book of Records. I received my medal at a ceremony in London. It was there that I met Paul McCartney. I told him he was the most fabulous man in England and that because of him I started flying. He was so nice. I got to know Linda too. I was even invited to his parties.

PB: Did you ever marry?

VV: Yes. I got happily married in 1977 and then happily divorced 10 years ago!

PB: Were you able to have a family?

VV: The doctors told me I could have a baby. I did get pregnant, but it was an ectopic pregnancy and I was, once again, close to death several times.

PB: You told me that you don't think you're lucky.

VV: No, I'm not. I'm not lucky. Everybody thinks I am lucky, but they a mistaken. If I were lucky I would never had this accident and my mother and father would be alive. The accident ruined their lives too. Maybe I was born in the wrong place. Maybe it was a bad place. Then again, 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. It's destiny, or fate. I could die now crossing the street.

In retirement Vesna continued her campaign against Milosovic and was regularly seen demonstrating in the streets of Belgrade. Whilst the police often made arrests, Vesna remained untouchable ... she was, and is, a national hero. When the Milosovic regime finally tumbled, Vesna was on the balcony at the city hall as one of the celebrities making victory addresses that were the entrée to a night of partying for the Serbian people.

Nobody knows how Vesna survived the accident. Some have said it was due to the fuselage hitting the side of the hill at an angle rather than hitting the ground directly. In practical terms the figure of 33,000 feet is somewhat irrelevant because, according to the Guinness Book of Records it is estimated that the human body reaches 99% of its low-level term velocity after failing 573m (1,880 feet) which takes 13-14 seconds. This is 117-125mph at normal atmospheric pressure and in a random posture.

Others have survived falls above 1,880 feet. In 1942 a Russian bailed out of his Ilyushinn at 22,000 feet when being attacked by German Messerschmidts. He landed in thick snow and mode a speedy recovery. In another war story RAF gunner Nick Alkemande fell 18,000 feet and sprained a leg. The branches of pine trees and the snow on the ground saved him.

Vesna thinks that her story gives people hope that such incidents are survivable. The question is whether we want that hope...