Juliane Koepcke has one of the most impressive and enthralling survival stories of the Amazon rainforest. Incredible good fortune, a determination to survive, and some basic survival training learned from her father all played their part in her miraculous tale. Without any of these, the ending could have been very different for the young German Peruvian.
In 1971, Juliane was a 17-year old girl studying in senior high school to become a zoologist like her father, who was working in Pucallpa, in the Peruvian Amazon. It was Christmas Eve, and she had boarded LANSA flight 508 on her way to see her father. Reports of bad weather and thunderstorms were passed to the pilots. However, owing to the pressure of meeting the holiday time schedule, the flight continued as planned.
This turned out to be a catastrophic mistake. Around 60 minutes after take-off, the plane was struck by lightning as it flew through strong turbulence 21,000 feet above the Amazon rainforest. Terrified, Juliane held onto her mother, who was sat next to her throughout the journey. As a result of the lightning strike, the wing caught fire and separated, causing the plane to disintegrate and crash into the mountainous terrain below. Juliane was sucked out of the aircraft into the cold air of the black night, and fell more than two miles to the ground, still strapped in her seat.
Miraculously, ten hours later, she awoke alive on the jungle floor. She had a damaged eye due to the sudden change in air pressure-bursting capillaries. Besides her eye, she was suffering from a broken collar bone, a deep cut in her arm, and some severe concussion.
Juliane spent the rest of that day dropping in and out of consciousness, too injured and weak to remove herself from the seat she was strapped to.
When she eventually regained her strength, her first priority was to locate her mother. De-spectacled, and with one eye swollen shut, the search proved too difficult, and she had to concede the sad, but the inevitable fact she was not likely to see her mother again.
The next eight days were spent weakly clambering through the jungle, with just some sweets she had recovered from the wreckage as sustenance.
After several days had passed, she heard the sound of king vultures overhead, and managed to locate the bodies of several other passengers, who were buried deep in the ground, killed instantly after their fall.
Needless to say, avoiding insect bites in the Amazon is a difficult task at the best of times… but nights were particularly difficult for Juliane: suffering from numerous bites, she was rarely able to sleep and quickly became weaker and weaker.
She happened upon a stream, and remembering her father’s sound survival advice of tracking water downriver to civilization, she eventually came across a canoe, complete with an outboard motor and a gas tank. By this stage, the gash on her arm had become infected and was infested with maggots.
“I remember having seen my father when he cured a dog of worms in the jungle with gasoline. I got some gasoline and poured it on myself. I counted the worms when they started to slip out. There were 35 on my arm.” Juliane Koepcke, The News and Courier – Jan 9, 1972
Not wanting to steal the boat, Juliane summoned the strength to follow a trail up a hill which eventually led to a camp. She laid there for several hours, watching frogs go about their business in the trees. As she watched them with her empty stomach, she considered eating them, but could not find the strength to capture any. Later she discovered these were poison dart frogs, and had she made them her dinner, she would almost certainly have died from ingesting their toxic secretions.
Not long after, she heard men approaching who discovered her lying there and tended to her injuries as best they could, as it was too late to start down the river.
However, the following day, after a seven-hour boat ride, she arrived at a small missionary facility where she remained for several days, receiving medical attention and food, before she was able to take a flight to her original destination of Pucallpa, to finally meet her father.
Of all 92 passengers and crew, Juliane was the sole survivor. It was later discovered that 14 of her fellow passengers, her mother included, had survived the fall, but perished in the following days awaiting rescue. The remains of the plane can still be found at their original crash site, but thankfully the bodies of all the passengers have been recovered thanks to Juliane’s help and were laid to rest in a cemetery in Yarinacocha.
Juliane is now a biologist living in Germany. Her story has been dramatized in the 1974 Italian movie “I miracoli accadono ancora (Miracles Still Happen)” which she co-wrote, and later in the acclaimed 1998 documentary “Julianes Sturz in den Dschungel (literally Juliane’s Freefall into the Jungle but dubbed Wings of Hope)”, written and directed by Werner Herzog. Her life-affirming autobiography, “Als ich vom Himmel fiel (When I Fell From the Sky)” was released in 2011, for which she won the Corine Literary Prize.
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