Woman Falls 10,000 Feet In An Amazon Plane Crash. Years After, She Tells Her Story
It’s one of the most unbelievable experiences imaginable. At 17 years old, Juliane Koepcke had survived plummeting nearly two miles from a mid-air plane crash. She was left stranded alone in the Peruvian Amazon jungle, in wet threadbare clothes, with no supplies, and barely able to see.
With wild animals and unpredictable elements a constant concern, she had to somehow escape with no signs of civilization in sight. Facing sleep deprivation, close to no food supply, and no treatment for her wounds, time was of the essence. This is how this brave and resourceful teen girl endured not one, but two unimaginable feats of survival.
1. Unique Childhood
Juliane Koepcke had been born and raised in Lima, Peru, the only child of German researcher parents, Hans-Wilhelm and Maria. When Juliane was 17, her mother was recognized as a leading ornithologist renowned in her field, and her father was a biologist and zoologist who was stationed in the city of Pucallpa in the east of the country.
As they had been apart for some time, Maria and Juliane set out to reunite with Hans-Wilhelm for Christmas, excited to celebrate the holiday with him. The airline they had chosen had a history of accidents, but they took the risk, wanting to get to Pucallpa as soon as possible. There was no indication of what lay ahead.
2. Flight Delay
Juliane’s mother had wanted to leave Lima several days prior in order to beat the Christmas season rush, but Juliane insisted they stay. A senior in high school, she wanted to make sure she had time to go with her friends to a school dance, not to mention her graduation ceremony.
On December 24, 1971, mother and daughter flew out of Lima on LANSA Airlines Flight 508, heading east to Pucallpa. The flight had been delayed and the passengers were antsy, not wanting to miss a moment of the Christmas celebrations with their loved ones. All in all, the flight was only supposed to last an hour.
3. Worsening Conditions
Twenty-five minutes into the flight, dark ominous clouds appeared all around. Although the risks were plainly obvious, the flight crew made the decision to push forward. They did not want to further aggravate their passengers, who were already anxious about flight delays on Christmas. The plane flew straight into a severe thunderstorm.
The plane had reached an altitude of about 21,00 feet when it began to shake as it might from normal turbulence, but it quickly grew far more violent. As the terrified passengers cried out in alarm, the plane began to pitch up and down, and the overhead bins opened up, luggage and packages dumping out, Christmas cakes and flower bouquets scattering about the cabin. Then the unthinkable happened.
4. Moment Of Disaster
As the fury of the storm intensified, the plane was barely able to maintain stability. Then, a bolt of lightning directly hit one of the fuel tanks on the aircraft. The plane’s right wing was blown clear off and ignited the tank. From a height of roughly 21,000 feet, incapacitated, the plane instantly took a nosedive.
It was a scenario straight out of everyone’s worst possible nightmare. As the LANSA Airlines flight descended almost 10,000 feet in seconds, Juliane’s mother, Maria, said to her calmly, “This is it.” The engines roared deeply over the sounds of screaming passengers. Then, all of a sudden, there was a wave of silence.
5. Rapid Descent
Still strapped in with her safety belt, Juliane Koepcke and her entire row of seats were launched out of the downed plane in midair as the aircraft deteriorated. All she heard was silence, a whisper of wind, as she plummeted in free fall for 10,500 feet, roughly two miles through the air.
She saw the brilliantly green treetops of the Peruvian Amazon rainforest, looking quite like a vast swath of broccoli beneath her, growing closer and closer. Then, all went black from the rapid change in air pressure and altitude, and the force of impact. Unconscious, she and the row of seats fell to Earth.
6. The First Miracle
LANSA Flight 508 had entirely fallen apart while still in midair. Juliane had been ejected before she could even comprehend what was happening. Yet, miraculously and despite all odds, Juliane had survived the fall. It is likely that the thick vegetation of the jungle canopy with its treetops and vines slowed Juliane’s fall to the ground.
Considering that she had no parachute, the odds that she would survive such the fall from the plane crash were slim to none. However, it was likely that the extra seats in the row surrounding her could have acted to break the wind resistance. Knocked unconscious on the forest floor, she did not wake up until the following morning.
7. Miraculous Survival
Even though Juliane had by some unbelievable miracle survived falling two miles through the air from the plane crash, she had not impacted with the ground and remained unscathed. As she tumbled through the layers of the forest, she had suffered a series of injuries and fractures throughout her body, some of which left deep, open wounds.
Her right eye had swollen shut because of the damage from rapid change in air pressure. She tried to raise herself up to stand and assess her surroundings, but because of her concussion, she immediately lost consciousness and blacked out again. It took her half a day just to stand. But her extraordinary tale of survival had only just begun.
8. The Hardest Search
Naturally, Juliane’s first thought dictated what her primary mission would be: locating her mother. For her first day in the jungle, Juliane called her mother’s name, and searched for her as best as she could. The problem was, even looking around had become a challenge: she had lost her glasses in the crash.
Given her situation, the ability to accomplish simple tasks was going to be more challenging than for the average person. Walking was especially difficult, as she had just one shoe and could not verify what dangers lay in her path. She quickly thought of a clever way to maneuver past her hindrances.
9. A Creative Method
Before each step she took as she walked through the Peruvian jungle, Juliane would throw her sole sandal in front of her to startle away any potential snakes or other harmful creatures that might have crossed her path. She had poor eyesight and was very near-sighted, without her glasses she couldn’t be sure what was around her.
She kept searching for her mother, but could not find anyone. In fact, none of the other signs of the plane crash nor its victims were in sight. As Juliane slowly began to comprehend the immensity of the situation and its terms, a terrible creeping realization took hold of her.
10. Pushing Forward
After a day of scouring the area unsuccessfully for her mother Maria, she recovered her senses in the aftermath of the LANSA Airlines plane crash. However, Juliane Koepcke’s pained search left her with nothing. She then understood that she had to face the bitter truth: that she might never find her mother.
She had to press forward and save herself. From a scientific perspective, in such situations, the human body’s rush of adrenaline – combined with the shock of such trauma – often kicks into a primal survival instinct. It’s rather like being on total auto-pilot. But Juliane had a huge advantage over others her age.
11. Prepared For The Worst
Unlike many other girls her age, whether from an affluent background or not, Juliane had some survival training in the past. Years before the plane crash, she had spent a period of time with her parents on a research station in the jungle just 30 miles away from where she was presently wandering.
For a year-and-a-half, she stayed at the Peruvian research station, observing and learning. As a result of that experience, she knew some principles of trekking and the logic of survival skills in the wilderness. But beyond her eyesight and remote location, she was crippled by another huge problem.
12. Without A Tool
Juliane had fallen from the plane crash with only the clothes on her back. That meant she had no supplies. If she had so much as a pocketknife or a lighter, she could have possibly made herself a shelter, or even could have built herself a fire from tinder on the forest floor.
With such a fire, she could have potentially sent out a smoke signal for the rescue planes looking for survivors of the crash. With a knife, she could have sliced into palm trees to eat their sugar. Instead, she had just herself, dressed in a mini skirt, bare, exposed to the elements. Her overwhelming ordeal was far from over.
13. Forest Fauna
Being in the thick of the Peruvian Amazon meant having to contend with local residents. The animals in the forest that Juliane encountered, such as deer and monkeys, were not afraid of her. Usually, such animals would bolt in the presence of a human intruder. But these ones seemed unfazed by her walking around.
Most people seeing such wildlife in close proximity would be thrilled. However, the idea troubled Juliane, because if the animals weren’t used to humans, then perhaps that signaled that there were no humans in the area at all that could save her. As she continued her journey, she didn’t realize that something more sinister was constantly lurking nearby.
14. Walking Lunch
Every step she took, every moment she tried to relax and collect herself, Juliane was not alone. The ravenous insects of the Peruvian Amazon swarmed to her and caused her great agony. She could not so much as lay down a hand on the forest floor without it being covered by ants.
The torment of the jungle’s insects prevented her from sleeping. Mosquitoes and biting flies plagued her, attracted to her untreated wounds from the plane crash. For days long without measure – her weary body aching and deprived of sleep, desperately hungry – she trudged onward. Then she stumbled across a shocking sight.
15. Other Passengers
Juliane had not found her mother, nor much to even hint at the plane crash from which she had somehow survived, but eventually she came upon a grim sight. After four days walking through the jungle, Juliane encountered a row of seats from the plane, but the passengers strapped in had sadly not survived.
Consumed by her hunger, she found by the wreckage a Christmas cake someone had brought with them on the fated flight. Much to her despair, the confection was so soaked through with mud that she rendered it inedible. Thankfully, there was also a bag of lollipops at the site. She took them. Finally she had something to eat. But for how long?
16. Key Clue
Although the sight of the plane crash was jarring to say the least, it had provided Juliane with a source of food — and now, she found something else. Not far from the row of seats, she detected something crucial. There was a tiny spring of water running, trickling onto a stone.
Though her eyesight was still blurry, her hearing had not been dulled, and she could follow the burble of the stream to trace its path. It was not only useful for drinking water, but she knew it had a another critical purpose. Her past learning had prepared her for this moment.
17. Follow The Water
Juliane had learned from her father years before to follow bodies of water. She recalled an anecdote he had recounted to her about an American expedition team in Peru years before, that had been stranded with a wounded man in the wilderness. The team member had followed water back to Juliane’s parents at the research station.
If there was a stream running, then chances were, it could lead her to a larger body of water, such as a river. As the people living in this region of Peru relied on rivers for transport, she hoped it was likely that she might eventually encounter a village along its shores. She followed the path of the stream closely.
18. Wading Blind
Recalling her father’s anecdote from the jungle research station ended up helping Juliane greatly. The small, otherwise insignificant stream ended up feeding into a river, one of the many tributaries of the Amazon itself. Once she had successfully navigated towards the river, Juliane waded fearlessly out into the water. It came up to her waist.
Hoping she would eventually find someone inhabiting its banks, she moved down the river as best as she could, given her condition. Ever resourceful and thinking ahead, she poked the mud with a stick before stepping so as to stir up any stingrays or electric eels that could harm her. She’d already overcome so much, but still, there were even worse things to fear.
19. River Monsters
Even if she was able to ward off any dangerous creatures hiding in the muck, Juliane was very worried that the blood from her cuts and gashes might attract one of the Peruvian rainforest’s most voracious predators: piranhas. The water, fortunately, was moving too fast for them to swim efficiently.
For days upon days, she trudged forward, traversing the river and the mud of its banks. She subsisted solely from stream water and the few lollipops she had found by the seats ejected from the plane crash, but it was far from sufficient. To her dismay, she could not find any signs of human habitation. However, she’d soon come across other, more menacing, lifeforms.
20. Don’t Fear The Reptiles
As Juliane made her way down the path of the river, not knowing at all where she was heading. She had to trust that there was even the smallest possibility that she would eventually encounter some semblance of human civilization. In addition to the other threats of the jungle, she saw crocodiles slide off the muddy banks into the river.
It was a sight that would have terrified the average person, but Juliane was no average girl. She knew that crocodiles in these parts generally did not attack humans, and they were probably just as startled by her. For a blur of days upon days, she searched. Then, at long last, she found something: a boat!
21. Deteriorated Physical State
By this point, Juliane had been alone wandering the treacherous expanses of the Peruvian Amazon jungle with open, untreated wounds for 10 days. She covered her skin with leaves to prevent mosquitoes from biting her any more. When she saw the boat, she was sure it was a hallucination.
She could have taken the boat and attempted to paddle down the river by herself to speed up — but she didn’t want to steal. Instead, she siphoned out some of its gasoline and used it to disinfect her wounds. She staggered up beyond it to another welcome sight: a nearby hut.
22. Slipping Through Delirium
Finding the boat and the hut to shelter in could not have come at better timing. Juliane’s time was running out fast as her last remaining energy reserves dwindled. Starving and delirious, Juliane tried to catch some frogs to eat, but they were too quick for her and got away.
As it turned out, the fact that the frogs were able to escape her grasp was yet another link in a long chain of miracles that saved Juliane’s life. They were lethal poison-dart frogs, but her dim eyesight couldn’t discern that. Again without sustenance, she drifted off to sleep in the hut. In the morning, she was awoken with a start.
At long last, after having survived the plane crash and the perils of the Amazon alone for 11 days, Juliane was discovered! Three local Peruvian Indian lumber workers were astonished to come across a girl sleeping in their hut, but it wasn’t only because they were usually the only people in the area.
Local tribal tradition held that water spirits inhabited the river, who appeared with pale skin and blonde hair just like hers. Though hesitant at first, she introduced herself in Spanish and explained her ordeal. They helped disinfect her and clean her, and then rowed her for long hours downriver to the nearest village with an airfield and radio.
24. Bittersweet Reunion
Thanks to the lumber workers’ rescue mission, Juliane was airlifted to Pucallpa. She finally was able to fall into her father’s arms, who had been searching frantically for her and her mother ever since the news of the horrific plane crash just before Christmas. Juliane was immediately taken to a missionary hospital.
From the information Juliane provided in retelling the series of events, rescue workers were able to locate the crash site and find the victims. It was then finally confirmed that her mother, tragically, had not survived. Juliane was the lone survivor from the whole plane. The other 86 passengers and 6 crew member has tragically all perished. Despite her incredible tale of triumph, how could she move forward after such a horrific experience?
25. Triumphing Over Trauma
After surviving the worst lightning-caused disaster in history, Juliane recuperated for months, wracked by nightmares and survivor guilt. When news of her story spread, she became something of a celebrity, receiving fan mail and letters of support the world over. Following in her parents’ career footsteps, she returned to Germany and gained a doctorate in mammalogy.
Koepcke also penned an award-winning autobiography released in 2011 called “When I Feel From The Sky.” And, in the strangest coincidence of all, she later starred in a 1998 film later about her unbelievable experience by renowned director Werner Herzog — who had been on a scouting mission and would have been on the same flight, but was delayed. These days, Juliane Koepcke is married and working as a librarian at a zoological research institute in Munich.
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