Aurelia Grigore, 60, is now a retired airline stewardess living quietly in Bucharest, Romania, who having kept calm through two plane crashes can say with assurance to would-be travellers: "Do not be afraid to fly!"
What do you do if you're a stewardess on a fully loaded plane that has just crashed into the ocean, broken open, and salty-tasting water is dripping over your face? You are in the water, sharks are swimming around you, attracted by blood from injured passengers. The broken body of the plane is within reach, but it's on fire at one end and at any moment may explode?
Luckily this isn't your first plane crash -- so the choice between sharks and fire can be taken calmly -- and correctly: you climb back into the broken plane, hoping it doesn't explode, and await rescue.
This was the situation that the former Tarom Airlines' stewardess had survived and was recounting for a Romanian magazine writer when she was interviewed at her apartment in Bucharest after finally retiring.
TAROM is the name for the state-run Romanian Air Transport system, and Aurelia Grigore says she is the only stewardess who continued to fly for Tarom after two air accidents.
I learned about Aurelia's earlier crash from a Wikipedia page that I stumbled upon while doing trip-planning. It was posted on the Cluj-Napoca International Airport's entry, under 'Accidents' -- the only incident, by the way, since 1986:
On 5 September 1986 at about 19.45, a fully loaded Antonov An-24RV aircraft departed Bucharest Otopeni Airport, bound for Cluj-Napoca. When the landing procedure began, one of the flight attendants, Aurelia Grigore, realized that the aircraft was landing at higher than normal speed. When the main landing gear touched ground, it bounced repeatedly until the aircraft stopped. The front of the aircraft was on fire. Grigore realized they had an emergency situation. With her flight attendant colleague, she decided to start deplaning passengers. She opened the emergency exit and she let the stairs down, but the stairs weren't touching the ground because the front gear was broken. She was helped by Emil Hossu, a famous actor. "He was one of the few people that didn't panic and helped us evacuate the aircraft in safety", said Grigore. After evacuating the passengers they returned to help the pilots who were trapped in the cockpit. "The cockpit was on fire and we lost any faith that we could save them". The next moments were horrible for all passengers and flight crew. The aircraft was destroyed by flames and with the pilots still on board. After 10 minutes, they saw one of the copilots trying to escape through a window. "He told us his foot was stuck and that he couldn't get it out. We tried to help him, but we couldn't. Finally he managed to get out of the aircraft on fire. He was completely burned, you couldn't even look at him. It was terrible. The other 2 pilots burned alive as we watched them, helpless". The copilot died also. He was transported to the ER but died the next day because of the burns. The authorities said that the accident was due to an equipment malfunction. The 3 pilots were the only casualties.
OK, so who was this famous actor, Emil Hossu, who had kept his cool and helped save that planeload of passengers?
Here's his photo as a young man. He died in 2012, after a long career in Romanian film during which he appeared in over fifty movies and stage productions. His most famous movie, "The Secret of Baccus", an action-comedy made in 1984, can still be watched online, but its dialog is in Romanian without English subtitles.
For Aurelia, being known as "The Stewardess Who Cheated Death Twice", as this headline describes her, became perhaps over time a liability. Toward the end of her flying career she began to feel as though people regarded her like a "black cat" -- an omen of bad luck.
"Pilots were afraid of me," she says -- and not only the pilots!
"On a flight to Moscow, the football teacher, Mircea Radulescu, got off the plane because I was on board," Aurelia remembers.
05 JUN 2014