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Trapped in a Harrowing Midair Collision

MTLarisa Savitskaya relating how she plunged from 5,220 meters and survived after a military bomber rammed into her plane.
Perhaps more than anyone, Larisa Savitskaya can empathize with the two flight attendants who survived the recent Il-86 crash at Sheremetyevo Airport. She was in midair plane collision high above the forests of the Far East -- and made it out alive.

"I didn't want to live after that," said Savitskaya, 41, the sole survivor of the 1981 crash that killed her husband, 25 other passengers and the crew of an An-24 turboprop plane. The pilots on the Tu-16 bomber that struck her plane also died.

As Savitskaya fell from 5,220 meters for a long eight minutes, the only thought going through her mind was how to soften the moment of impact.

"I reconciled with what had happened and didn't scream," she said in an interview this week. "There was no way to stay alive."

But she did.

Savitskaya, then 20, was returning from a honeymoon with her husband, Vladimir, also 20.

She remembers not wanting to board the Aeroflot plane in Komsomolsk-on-Amur for the flight home to Blagoveshchensk, a city saddling the Chinese border in the Amur region.

"My husband brought the tickets, and I said I did not want to fly on Aug. 24, although I don't know why I was saying that," she said. "But there were no tickets left for any other day."

The morning flight was delayed until lunchtime, and the young couple spent hours waiting at the airport with the other passengers. "People waiting for the flight sat together. I remember many faces."

Savitskaya was sound asleep when the Tupolev bomber hit the turboprop at 5,220 meters, razing off its roof and severing both wings.

Her plane was 30 minutes away from home.

The bomber was from an air base in the town of Zavitinsk, not far from the collision.

"I thought it had been an explosion," Savitskaya said. "There was a cacophony of the wind whistling, people screaming. The cold was burning my face, the sky above my head ... It's difficult to compare it with anything else ...

"It abruptly changed my life.

"My husband was sitting next to me. I turned to look at him, he was taller, and his head was hit by the debris. I saw a river of blood, something at odds with life. But many people were still alive."

She turned to her husband and said goodbye. Then the plane fell apart.

She was thrown into an aisle and passed out.

When she came to, she realized she was falling. She was still trapped inside a chunk of the plane.

She frantically tried to figure out how to make the impact less painful. Suddenly, she remembered a movie in which a woman survived a plane crash by clinging to her seat.

Savitskaya dragged her way to a window seat and sat down. She peered out into the low afternoon clouds, looking for the earth.

"I was waiting for the moment the airplane hit the ground," she said. "I was pushing against the seat with my hands and feet, perhaps hoping to absorb the blow."

The impact knocked Savitskaya unconscious. Trees broke the fall.

She suffered a concussion, a broken arm and rib and spinal injuries. She recovered consciousness a few hours later. It was raining and cold.

Two days passed. On the third day, she ventured outside the shell of the plane to look for help. She gave up and returned to the wreckage.

Shortly after, a surprised rescue team found her sprawled on the seat by the window, no longer able to stand.

Only eight years later did she find out why the plane had crashed.

"Officially, planes never crashed in the Soviet Union," she said.

So hushed-up was the accident that the first reports in the Soviet press said Savitskaya had crashed a homemade glider. And those stories were published almost four years after the crash.

Right after the accident, the KGB warned Savitskaya's mother to keep quiet, Savitskaya said.

When she learned that her husband was dead, she felt "no fear but an overwhelming grief."

Military prosecutors later said that the pilots of both aircraft were at fault for the crash.

Aeroflot sent Savitskaya 75 rubles in compensation. "That was enough to last for a month, and then what?" she said.

The extraordinarily small amount of compensation earned her a second mention in the Russian book of world records. The other mention in the 1992 book was her miraculous survival.

She was first treated for a concussion and the broken rib. A week later, doctors realized she had a broken arm, and a month after that they discovered the spinal injuries.

Doctors declared that the injures had not left her disabled, so she could not qualify for a pension. "They said I had suffered too little," she said.

The military also refused to help her, saying she was not a victim but a witness.

Savitskaya said her parents found a chiropractor who was able to diagnose and treat the injuries. Thanks to him, she began walking again 10 months after the crash.

Five years later, life was returning to normal and she became a mother. She said she had wanted a child "for herself."

These days, she lives with her son, Georgy, 17, and a cat in a one-room Moscow apartment. She has lived in Moscow since 1990 and works for a real estate agency three days a week.

"I am still overwhelmed about what happened. I don't feel like it is over," she said.

She said she does not have nightmares. She usually only thinks about the crash when someone asks her about it or when a plane goes down.

Those memories flooded back when the Pulkovo Airlines Il-86 crashed shortly after takeoff July 28. Investigators said the two flight attendants survived the fall from 600 meters because they were in the rear section of the plane, which landed largely intact. Pilot error or a mechanical malfunction are suspected as the cause of the crash.

Savitskaya continues to fly despite the scrape with death. An engine that caught fire before a flight in 1990 did not scare her away either.

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