Her survival was hailed a miracle - the flight attendant who plunged 10,160m without a parachute when an aircraft broke up above the clouds.

But 40 years later, with doubt cast on the official version of the aeroplane's plunge to earth, Vesna Vulovic spends her days alone with only her cats for company.

"Whenever I think of the accident, I have a prevailing, grave feeling of guilt for surviving it and I cry ... Then I think maybe I should not have survived at all," she tells the Independent from her dilapidated flat in Belgrade.

One of the problems for Vulovic, 62, is that although she survived, any memory of the crash has gone. "I do not remember the accident at all, just my waking up in the Czech hospital the next day and asking a doctor for a cigarette," she says.


According to the official version of events, exactly 40 years ago today the Yugoslav Airlines flight JU 367, travelling from Zagreb to Copenhagen, fell into woods near Srbska Kamenice in the former Czechoslovakia, killing 23 passengers and four crew. Vulovic, then 22, was the only survivor, her broken body found among the wreckage.

After a brief investigation, Yugoslav officials said separatists from a Croatian fascist movement, the Ustashi, planted a bomb. The Guinness Book of World Records gave Vulovic the record for the highest fall without a parachute.

But none of the Croatian anti-Yugoslav organisations ever claimed responsibility.

Then three years ago, two investigative journalists said it was likely that the jet - a McDonnell Douglas DC9-32 - was mistaken for an enemy aircraft as it attempted an emergency landing, and was shot down only 800m above the ground by a MiG fighter of the Czechoslovak Air Force. The Czech Civilian Aviation Authority dismissed the claims but Guinness World Records said it had been duped.

For Vulovic, those allegations cast a shadow over her status as a national heroine.

But whatever the true version of events, there is little doubt she is a survivor: the crash left her paralysed from the waist down but, after two operations, she learned to walk again a year later.

"I'm like a cat, I have many lives," she says.

- Independent