The Woman Who Fell From the Sky and Survived

Vesna Vulovic was a Serbian flight attendant who holds the Guiness World Record for surviving the highest fall without a parachute: 33,330 feet (10,160 meters). Her fall occurred in 1972 after an explosion brought down a Yugoslav airliner, killing everyone else on board.

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Although she broke multiple bones (including a totally crushed vertebra), sustained severe brain damage, and was in a coma for ten days, she suffered only partial and temporary paralysis, and made an almost full recovery within a year (she continued to walk with a limp for the rest of her life, owing to the spinal damage). Vulovic attributed her recovery to her “Serbian stubbornness” and “a childhood diet that included chocolate, spinach, and fish oil”.

Perhaps just as remarkable was her willingness that same year to go back to work for the same airline as a flight attendant. Concerned about getting too much publicity, her employer opted to give her a desk job. She was later fired for speaking out against Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milosevic (who would go on to commit war crimes during the breakup of Yugoslavia) and avoided arrest only because of her exalted status.

Though she became something a celebrity and national hero, Vulovic struggled with survivor’s guilt for the rest of her life, forgoing therapy and instead turning to Orthodox Christianity. Remarkably, her experience also made her an optimist, once stating “If you can survive what I survived, you can survive anything”. She spent her final years as a secluded pensioner and divorcee until she died in 2016.

 

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