On January 26th 1972, flight 367 from JAT (Yugoslav Airlines) left Stockholm bound for Belgrade. The plane is a McDonnell Douglas DC-9 and the flight plan includes 2 stops: Copenhagen and Zagreb. After taking off from Copenhagen there are 28 people on board, 23 passengers and 5 crew. Vesna Vulović, 22 years old, is one of the 3 flight attendants that along with the pilot and the copilot have replaced the crew that departed from Sweden. She is working in this flight because the person organising the rotas mixed her up with another colleague also called Vesna. But Vulović was happy about it all since she had always wanted to visit Denmark’s capital and sleep in the Sheraton.
The flight is uneventful and the plane is stable at cruise altitude and speed when at 15:59 the pilots receive the weather forecast from the VOLMET system. They are informed that no complications are foreseen. At 16:01, when they are flying over Hersmdorf (then in the GDR) the plane suddenly disappears from the radar screens and any communications cease.
An explosion in the front cargo area breaks the plane apart at an altitude of 10160 metres (33330 ft) causing it to spin out of control. The plane, broken in two pieces, crashes against the snowed slope of a mountain by Srbská Kamenice, a small village in Czecoslovaquia (nowadays in the Czech Republic). Among the scattered debris of the DC-9 there are 27 corpses and, miraculously, one survivor, Vesna Vulović.
As soon as the news of the accident arrived the Czechoslovak secret service (Státní Bezpečnost) sealed the area, not allowing access to other authorities or the press. On the morning of the following day (January 27th) the swedish newspaper Kvällsposten received an anonymous call from a man who, in broken swedish, claimed to be from Croatia and that he belonged to a nationalist group responsible for putting a bomb in the plane. A few hours later the Yugoslav government officially blamed the Ustaše as the hand behind the terrorist attack. Some ten days later the Czechoslovak secret service presented some burnt parts of an alarm clock which they stated came from a bomb and had been found in the plane debris. They also informed that (strangely enough) the black boxes had not appeared.
In May 1974 the final results of the investigation were presented concluding that the plane disintegrated in mid-air due to an explosion caused by a bomb placed at the front of the plane. No terrorist organisation, Croatian or not, ever claimed responsibility for the bombing. No other proofs were found of a terrorist attack. No one was arrested and there weren’t any parallel investigations. The Yugoslav government accepted the official explanation given by the Státní Bezpečnost and the case was closed.
All the facts related above are the official account of events as still accepted today.
But let’s go back to Vesna right where we left her. Still following the official theory, Vesna was able to survive to such a free fall due to a series of circumstances. At the moment of the blast she was at the rear part of the plane which was torn apart from the rest of the fuselage. One of the catering trolleys pinned her to the wall preventing her from being sucked out of the plane during the fall. The tail cone of the DC-9 stayed intact during the fall and that had 2 effects: the fall was slowed down below the so-called terminal velocity (due to air friction) and the fuselage protected her body from the full force of the impact. Also, when the tail cone impacted against the snowed slopes of the mountain it did it with such angle that made the debris crash-slip, so the brutal deceleration did not happen all at once.
The explanation above has been the most common one given by physicists, aviation experts and people who studied the accident to the unbelievable fact that a person can survive a 10 Km freefall.The conclusion was: “extremely improbable but not impossible”. The famous TV show “Mythbusters” dedicated one of their programs to the accident, calling it “Freefall Flight Attendant”. Their verdict was similar: there was an infinitesimal probability of a person surviving, depending on the conditions on impact of the fuselage where Vesna was trapped.
But the scenario described above and officially accepted as true contradicts the version given by Bruno Henke, a person who lived in the area where the plane fell and who was the very first person to arrive at the site of the accident. According to Henke (who later on called his own daughter Vesna as an homage to her), Vulović was not at the tail but in the middle section of the plane, right above the wings. Bruno’s medical knowledge (he had been a doctor in the Wehrmacht during WWII) were key to save Vesna’s life since he knew what to do. Henke told her that he found her following her screams. She had the lower part of her body still inside the plane and her upper part hanging down and out of the fuselage. The body of one of her colleagues was on top of hers. Vesna has always believed Henke’s version. He had no reason to lie to her and they remained good friends till his death. Also, Vesna has stated that following JAT cabin protocol she had to be right behind the last passenger. As the DC-9 was half empty she should have been in the middle section of the plane.
Vesna had indeed survived but her situation was critical: she had a fractured skull, 3 broken vertebrae (one of them totally crushed), brain haemorrhage and multiple fractures in both legs. She was immediately sent to a Hospital in Prague were she spent the following 27 days going in and out of a coma. Apart from her very delicate health situation she also had another problem that has been crucial not to know what happened: she had memory loss. To this day she has no recollection of any memories related to the accident.
The day after she was taken to hospital she briefly woke up not knowing where she was or what had happened. She asked the doctor for a cigarette and slipped back into the coma moments later. Vesna finally knew about the accident some two weeks later when in a lapse of consciousness she was given a newspaper with the news. She suffered a huge shock that in her own words “almost killed me”. But even after knowing about the crash her memory was still blank. Her last image of the flight was helping the passengers board in Copenhagen.
Due to the broken vertebrae Vesna was paralysed waist down. After getting surgery she was able to move her left leg and, a month later, further surgery made her recover mobility in her right leg. In less than ten months and after an arduous re-learning process Vesna was able to walk again. She spent all that time going in and out of hospitals and resting by the sea in Montenegro before she was discharged.
Once recovered from the accident Vesna tried to go back to her normal life. She continued to work for JAT and she even asked the company to let her fly again. Since the accident memories were gone she was not scared to fly. But JAT refused her petition and instead she was given a desk job at the airline headquarters.
But nothing was the same ever again. Her amazing survival story made her a national heroine in Yugoslavia and she became a celebrity, not only in the Balkans but all around the world. When she was transferred to Belgrade from Prague, Tito gave her a welcoming reception, arguably the highest honour you could get in the country at the time. She got songs dedicated, she was a usual guest in prime time TV shows (what she did till the early 90s, some 20 years after the accident) and Vesna became a fashionable name for babies as it was assumed it brought good luck. In the very few occasions that JAT let her fly the Serbian passengers would instantly recognise her and move to a seat by her side thinking that if the worst happened they had a chance to survive. Tito’s regime pampered her and used her for propaganda purposes, something quite common during the Cold War years with people who became worldwide celebrities.
The peak moment of her international fame came in 1985 when The Guinness Book of Records invited her to London to assist to her induction ceremony. She was awarded with the “highest fall survived without a parachute” record and Paul McCartney, Vesna’s youth idol, gave her the prize.
Challenging the official version of the accident
From the very moment the details surrounding the accident were made public there were reasonable doubts about their veracity as stated by the StB and backed up by the Yugoslav authorities. On one hand the story was too attractive to resist to believe in it and on the other hand the well-known secrecy about anything happening behind the Iron Curtain did not help for any potential parallel investigations to clarify what happened. This helps understanding why the official version ended up being accepted almost unquestioned by the media and public opinion. There was not much chasing to shed some light to the dark areas.
And which were the main dark areas? Several and crucial: the black boxes were never found, nobody claimed responsibility for the accident even after Vesna’s survival made it an international sensation and it would have given huge echo to whatever terrorist cause, the StB took charge of the investigation and the information release instead of civil authorities, the Yugoslav government never questioned the outcome of the investigation despite its flaws and never started a parallel one, no arrests were made or charges pressed…
Vesna’s story had become something of a Cold War era weird tale, a recurrent subject in TV programs or magazine articles about “amazing happenings”. Until January 2009 when an investigation undertaken by a group of german-czech journalists (Peter Hornung-Andersen, Tim van Beveren and Pavel Theiner) was published in the magazine Tagesschau and broadcasted in a special program in the german radio station ARD.
The outcome of their investigation was very different to the official version. It stated that it would be “extremely probable” that the facts previously exposed were just a cover up of flight 367 being downed by mistake by MIG planes from the Czechoslovak Air Force. The new investigation was based in evidence uncovered from recently declassified documents marked as “Top Secret” from both the Czech Civil Authority and the Czech National Archives that were not available before. It took the group of journalists 2 years to publish the results.
According to them flight 367 started experiencing technical problems that lead to a steep descent, either for an emergency landing or maybe trying to stabilise the plane. After drifting away from the assigned route and altitude it was mistaken by an attacking enemy fighter and shot down by one or more MIGs.
But why such an aggressive and deadly reaction by the Czech Air Force fighters? The journalists give 2 possible reasons:
- the DC-9 strayed into a high security military area. There was a soviet nuclear missile base very close to where the plane was shot down.
- it is now known that the USSR premier, Leonid Brezhnev, was secretly visiting his RDA counterpart Erich Honecker and, after a conference in Prague, his plane was in the air and in the surroundings at the same moment.
According to the investigation, among the facts that the StB hid were the declarations of several eye witnesses assuring that the DC-9 appeared from below the clouds on fire but still in one piece and that it finally exploded at an approximate height of 800 meters. Those same witnesses saw another plane flying nearby at low altitude before disappearing moments later. This would agree with a report produced by a Yugoslav government investigator called Zlatko Veres who stated that the area covered by the plane debris was in line with a disintegration at 600-900 meters rather than at 10000 (the area had been much bigger).
What is more, the journalists say that Yugoslav intelligence knew the real reason of the crash but they helped in the cover up under heavy pressure from Moscow (the StB was directly supervised by Moscow and the relationship Belgrade-Moscow had been very tense since Tito decided to split with the soviets in the late 40s). In this context Vesna’s record was created as a distraction in order to avoid too many questions. And it was indeed a successful move: the general reaction was more focused in trying to explain her impossible survival rather than investigating in-depth the accident details.
The main reason given for such a long-lasting cover up is that the people who masterminded it and staged it still occupy key positions in both the Czech and Serbian secret services and the civil aviation authorities in those countries. They reported that many documents containing vital information about the crash had been deliberately destroyed and that the mentioned authorities did not help at all during the investigation, so getting every small bit of info was a painful and slow process. Sadly even nowadays a story in which bad Croats kill good Serbians has political value in Serbia. Only the Czech witnesses accepted to collaborate in full.
The Czech Aviation Civil Authority rejected the results of the new investigation but did not comment on the new evidence uncovered. A high rank in the Czech Army also rejected the results and denied any cover up stating that at least 150-200 people should have known about it and it does not make sense that they are not telling the truth 40 years later. A fact supporting the official version is that the Yugoslav prime minister at the time (a valuable target) was scheduled to take flight 367 but finally took an earlier one, something possibly unknown by the terrorists.
The consequences for Vesna
The challenge to the official version made headlines around the world and Vesna was asked about her opinion. In general she just stayed neutral, reminding that since she does not remember anything there is not much she can add. Still she thinks that the new explanation is a “nebulous nonsense” and does not convince her.The Guinness Book of Records on the other hand reacted very quickly and she was removed from the records. A representative stated that “it seems that at the time Guinness was duped by this swindle just like the rest of the media”. Vesna added that she would not mind at all if the record never happened since that would not change anything in her current life.
There are many in Serbia who think that it was Vesna’s status as a national legend that saved her from going to jail when she openly opposed to Slobodan Milošević’s regime in the late 80s. What she could not avoid was being fired by JAT in 1990 and her fall in disgrace at official level, but she did not seem to care that much. On the contrary her political activism increased and she could be seen on demonstrations of the Bulldozer Revolution that made the regime fall.Vesna, who admits that got happily married and even more happily divorced, lives on her own in her Belgrade apartment surrounded by her many cats. She still gives interviews but is mostly retired from the public eye. She has always admitted feeling guilty for having survived and she does not consider herself lucky: “I’m not lucky. Everybody thinks I am lucky, but they are 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.”. She does not think either that the accident was a miracle since there were 27 people who did not survive.
Vesna attended annual commemorations at the accident site till they were halted in 2002. She met Henke and the doctors that attended her in the 25th anniversary of the catastrophe. A hotel located close to where the plane fell is named after her. Nowadays she continues to give her political views and it is a supporter of president Boris Tadić. Every time she is interviewed she insists that her main concern is the political future of her country, stating that even if she survived the impossible if the dark days of ultra nationalism and war return her heart would be able to handle it.Vesna considers herself a survivor, but no more than the rest of the Serb people: “we Serbians are true survivors. We survived communism, Tito, the war, poverty, NATO bombings, sanctions and Milošević. We only want a normal life. I just want a normal life”.
This article is also available in Spanish in Dokodemo Door Blog
This article has been published in the Spanish cultural magazine Jot Down