Surviving a 5,220-meter fall clinging to a piece of airplane fuselage did not make the Soviet citizen Larisa Savítskaya, but an uncomfortable witness. On August 24, 1981, the passenger An-24 in which she was returning from her honeymoon with her husband collided in the sky with a bomber Túpolev 16K. The then twenty-something was the only survivor. Not only did she withstand the eight minutes of descent and collisions with the trees, she also endured three days injured and alone in the open. But the Soviet authorities concealed the story of that exceptional event. Following its traditional formula of opacity and secrecy, the incident was declared classified. Nor did Savítskaya know what happened that tragic day until after the fall of the USSR, three decades ago. 40 years after the accident, a documentary, Eight minutes to the ground, now looks at this story of survival and hiding, which next year will address the film Odna (A).
“They didn’t tell me anything. They only went to my mother and said: ‘Forget what happened,’ explains Savítskaya to EL PAÍS. “My mother signed some documents. I didn’t know what had happened for 10 years. Neither the number of passengers nor any version of the events, “says the survivor, who has managed to assimilate that traumatic day over time and rebuild her life:” Now I’m fine, I’m a happy person. “
In 1985 an article about the catastrophe was published for the first time. The pilots were blamed and one of the aircraft was said to have continued to fly. It took until the 1990s for the investigation to be declassified, and only then were the huge mistakes made by the Soviet air forces known. The flight plan of the Tu-16K crossed a civil route without having notified the bomber pilots, and the controller of the military base who should have supervised the Túpolev did not track aircraft by radar. Visibility was good, beyond 10 kilometers, but the Túpolev he suddenly met him Anton civilian in full rise. In total 37 people died: 31 aboard the passenger plane and the six crew of the Tu-16k.
The event occurred five years before the glare by Mikhail Gorbachev, the quest for transparency in the shadowy Soviet administration. However, neither the secrecy of the powerful Russian military apparatus nor the zeal to cover up its own mistakes never disappeared. The reports of the accident were kept in a drawer and the president himself did not give an example when the moment of truth arrived: it took him a month to appear after the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986. A governmental opacity that continues even today: In 2019, while an increase in radiation was detected in the frightened city of Arkhangelsk, the government was silent for four days that there had been an explosion in a laboratory of new weapons powered by nuclear engines.
“All for secrecy,” Savítskaya laments today, stressing that in the USSR the military and civilian air corridors were not coordinated. “Several more cases like this occurred in the country.” The sole survivor of the plane crash received 75 rubles from Aeroflot for the damages suffered, about 110 dollars at the time equivalent to 330 dollars today (287 euros), and 150 rubles more for the death of her husband.
Larisa was 20 years old. She knew Vladimir Savitsky through a mutual friend, although they started dating when she was already studying at the Moscow Institute of Pedagogy. They got married quickly and honeymooned with his parents. When they got on the plane to return to Blagoveshchensk (near the Chinese border), the plane was half empty and they positioned themselves in the back for convenience. A flight attendant invited them to sit in front, but they refused and they switched back to the seats of other passengers who did agree to move forward. Savítskaya saw her original seat blow up after the crash.
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“I woke up in the hallway,” recalls the survivor. The onslaught of the bomber tore off both wings and part of his plane, and its zone began to rotate without actually turning. Coming to herself, Larisa jerked back to her seat and buckled up. Vladimir was in the adjoining place, dead. “I knew at that moment that my husband had passed away. He had blood on his head, on his suit … ”, he recalls.
The fuselage progressively shattered in that eternal descent. By decompression it was bitterly cold, tens of degrees below zero, and Savítskaya was aware of everything. “People were screaming,” he says. He also saw the last minutes of several passengers. Gripping her seat as best she could, which was no longer fully fixed to the ground, scenes from a movie that she had seen the previous year with her husband came to mind, Miracle in green hell (1974), where the protagonist saved herself in the same way that she was doing at that very moment. Fortunately, the flexibility of the birch trees cushioned the impact against the ground.
“There are things that are not forgotten. No matter how hard I have tried, the plane crash is still with me, ”he says today. The survivor regained consciousness in the middle of the forest. He had broken arms, ribs and five points of the spine, and his teeth were broken. Around him the fog created a dreamlike place. In it was the lifeless body of her husband.
“I didn’t know where to go, surrounded by trees. It was terribly cold and it rained a lot. I wanted to sleep, but couldn’t because of the pain, ”describes Savítskaya, who decided to wait for rescue teams. He covered himself with the blankets he found from the seats and protected himself from the harassment of mosquitoes with plastic. To quench his thirst, he drank from a puddle. “I was soaked, I just wanted to warm up,” she recalls. Suddenly, a helicopter flew over her area and she signaled to her, but no one came to her aid, they confused her with some geologists working in the region. On the third day, she lost hope that they would find her there. Very weak, he started walking. She had barely made any progress when a rescue team found her. The next thing he remembers is waking up again in a hospital.
After the accident, he not only had to keep quiet. Nor did he receive any psychological support. “There was no such concept. Who helps in these kinds of situations? Mom Dad. When I moved to Moscow to learn psychophysiology, I studied myself. I managed to help myself, ”she adds.
The survivor has never worked as a psychologist with other accident victims, but her experience with post-traumatic stress has supported the victims. afgantsi, veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. “They have a similar state of mind. Understanding that I was not the only one, that there are more people who have survived similar things, helped me ”, says Savítskaya, who has rebuilt her life and today looks around her and sees“ a beloved husband, a job, a son and a granddaughter”. Nor has he been afraid of flying again: “A projectile does not fall twice in the same place ‘, this phrase is about me.”
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.