High-fallerVesna Vulovic

A Serbian, Vulović was a stewardess for JAT Yugoslav Airlines, and was working a flight between Stockholm, Sweden, to Belgrade, Serbia, on January 26, 1972. A suspected bomb on board exploded while they were over Czechoslovakia. The DC-9 aircraft broke apart, and everyone aboard, passenger and crew, was killed — except Vulović, who was pinned in a piece of the aircraft as it fell. At the time, the plane was flying at 10,160m (33,333 ft) high, and she was wearing a uniform, not a parachute. Amazingly, she survived. The man who found her, a German World War II army medic, reported she was in the middle of a piece of the plane, and he heard her screaming even as other pieces of wreckage were still falling around them. “I was found with my head down and my colleague on top of me,” she said later. “A catering trolly was pinned against my spine and kept me in my plane.” It’s thought that heavy woods and snow cushioned her fall, but she still had a fractured skull, three broken vertebrae (which left her temporarily paralyzed), and was in a coma for 10 days.

After a year of rehab she was able to return to work — to a desk job. Not that she was afraid to fly: she did, as a passenger, and “People always want to sit next to me on the plane!” Vulović gained fame as the survivor of the highest ever fall by a human being without a parachute (including a listing in the Guinness Book of Records), and she leveraged that fame into anti-communist political activism, protesting against President Slobodan Milosevic. She was fired from her job for her politics, but her fame protected her from arrest. “I am like a cat, I have had nine lives,” she said in 2008, “but if nationalist forces in this country prevail, my heart will burst.” Milosevic was finally forced out of power in 2000, tried for crimes against humanity, and died in prison. Vulović was found dead in her apartment on December 23, of unknown causes. She was 66.

From This is True for 25 December 2016