In 1972, Vesna Vulovic was a 22-year-old flight attendant working for JAT Yugoslav Airlines. One January day, there was a mixup with another flight attendant named Vesna, and Vulovic was mistakenly assigned to the crew for a trip between Copenhagen and Belgrade. An hour into the flight, the plane exploded over Czechoslovakia, killing everyone aboard—except Vulovic, saved because she was wedged into part of the fuselage by a food cart. Trees broke the fuselage section’s fall, and then it landed on a snowy hill. She woke up in the hospital and soon became a national hero and an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for surviving the longest fall without a parachute.
Here’s how my hopelessly American heart wants to interpret the story of Vesna Vulovic, who died this weekend at 66: She was a woman given a rare chance to treasure every precious extra second of her miraculous life, every moment a new reminder of life’s brevity and beauty. She was preposterously, galactically lucky.
Here’s how Vulovic interpreted her own story: “Everyone thinks I am lucky, but they are mistaken,” she told an interviewer. “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.”
Vulovic was in a coma for days after the crash, and she retained no memory of it. When she woke up, the first thing she asked for was a cigarette. She was paralyzed from the waist down for 10 months and afterward walked with a limp. She attributed her recovery to her Serbian stubbornness and a childhood diet that included chocolate, spinach, and fish oil. She asked to return to her old job, but the airline—perhaps more superstitious than she was—assigned her to a desk job. She liked to watch movies with airplane crashes.
The original crash investigation conducted by Czech authorities found that a suitcase bomb had caused the explosion. In 2009, a pair of investigative journalists in Prague claimed that a likelier explanation was that a jet in the Czech air force had mistaken the passenger plane for an enemy and shot it down. They also concluded that the plane broke up at a much lower altitude than previously believed, and that the secret police had spread the alternate story to cover it up. “The story was so good and so beautiful that no one thought to ask any questions,” one of the journalists said.
A “good and beautiful” narrative is even harder to resist when it’s your own. That’s what makes Vulovic’s resistance to the rhetoric of luck and blessings and gratefulness so intoxicating. Many people who survive hell focus not on the hell but on the survival, at least when they tell their stories publicly. So it’s bracing and unsettling to encounter someone like Vulovic, who refused to call her continued existence on earth “lucky.”
It’s true that at certain times, Vulovic described herself as an optimist. But it was a grim sort of optimism, like Pollyanna after a few months in the gulag. “If you can survive what I survived,” she said, “you can survive anything.” In a happier historical moment, that wouldn’t sound terribly uplifting—a glass half full of vinegar, perhaps. But for those of us left standing at the end of 2016, it sounds awfully close to inspirational.