A plane crash. Everyone fears it, yet we all convince ourselves it will never happen. We insist the aircraft will withstand any turbulence, the crew knows what they’re doing, and we’ll make it to our destinations alive. But what if that’s not the case?
When a young German girl and her mother boarded a plane in Peru, they were expecting to greet the family’s patriarch at the end of their flight and spend the holidays together as a family. However, one vicious storm literally turned what was meant to be a story of love and laughter into a tale of survival…
Juliane Koepcke was the daughter of German research biologists Hans and Maria. Since their field of expertise was tropical birds, Juliane spent her entire youth in Peru, where she learned Spanish, biology, and eventually how to survive.
It was December of 1971, and Hans Koepcke was stationed in Pucallpa, a smaller city built within the rainforest of Peru. Juliane and Maria had remained in Lima for Juliane’s high school studies and missed Hans dearly.
In order to reunite their family for the holidays, Juliane and Maria decided to fly to Pucallpa and visit Hans. Naturally before Christmas, tickets were selling fast and only a few airlines were available.
Maria wanted to beat the rush and leave early, but Juliane begged to stay in Lima a little longer so she could attend her school dance. They ended up buying two tickets for LANSA Airlines flight 508 on December 24th.
About an hour into the flight, the aircraft got caught in a thunderstorm and hit severe turbulence. Despite the danger ahead of them, the crew pushed through, under pressure to meet the holiday schedule.
The clouds became darker and darker until they were pitch black. The passengers saw nothing until a flash of glistening light struck the right wing… It was blown right off, and the motor was ignited.
Maria grabbed her daughter’s hand and calmly said “this is it.” The plane started to nosedive from 21,000-feet above sea level, and the rapid changes in air pressure caused people to lose consciousness left and right.
Suddenly, the Koepckes and their entire row of seats were launched out of the plane as the aircraft deteriorated. All Juliane heard was wind as she plummeted for roughly two miles towards the earth.
The last thing Juliane saw before she lost consciousness was the vast, green canopy of the Amazon rainforest. Then, everything went dark.
It wasn’t until the next morning that Juliane woke up, confused, aching, tired, and scared. She was still strapped to the row of seats, but her mom was nowhere to be found. As she tried to stand, she instantly blacked out again.
By late afternoon on Christmas, Juliane could finally stand. Her collarbone was broken, one of her eyes was swollen shut, and she had a large gash on her arm. Still, determined to find her mother, she began to walk through the dense trees.
Unfortunately, her injuries weren’t her only challenge — she had fallen with nothing but the clothes on her back. She had no knife, no matches, no flashlight, no food, not even a pair of boots.
Juliane spent her first two days in the jungle calling out for her mom and trying to find something to eat. Constantly she threw her only shoe in front of her to ward off any potential snakes hiding in her path.
As time went on, two possibilities dawned on Juliane: that she might not find her mother and that she may have been thrown so far from the actual crash that she wouldn’t be found. She had lost everything, but she had to keep going.
Unlike most other girls her age, Juliane had some survival training in the past. Years earlier, she had spent a year at a research station in the jungle with her parents, just 30 miles from where she was wandering.
So she knew it was strange that none of the animals she passed seemed scared of her. If they weren’t used to seeing humans, she knew, that meant they never saw humans. She was very, very far from the nearest village.
Most annoying of all was that, in addition to her isolation, ravenous insects of the Amazon attracted by her wounds swarmed to her. She got no rest, no sleep, no moment of peace.
Despite her hunger, thirst and exhaustion, Juliane pushed on, until she finally found something other than flora and fauna: another row of seats… with passengers strapped in! Gruesome as the sight was, Juliane knew she had to search the bodies for tools.
One passenger had a Christmas cake, but much to her disappointment, it was so soaked with mud that it’d been rendered inedible. Aside from that, she found a bag of lollipops. Finally she had something, anything to eat — but was it enough?
While the jarring row of seats brought Juliane nothing but lollipops and despair, there was something behind it all that caught her attention. Her sight may have been impaired, but her ears heard the flow of water nearby!
Not only did the stream of fresh water provide some much-needed hydration, it gave Juliane hope that maybe, just maybe, she could follow it for awhile and find a village.
Her hope flourished further when she recalled an anecdote about an American expedition team in Peru that had once been stranded with a wounded man in the wilderness. The team member had followed water back to Juliane’s parents’ research station.
Though it was just a tiny trickle, the stream, she knew, could eventually lead her to a river. And because locals in the area relied on rivers for transportation and fishing, she might be able to reach someone. It was all she had, so she went for it.
Her memory of the story certainly paid off, as she eventually found the river from which the stream split. There was no time to lose, so she waded fearlessly into the waist-high water.
Fighting for her life, Juliane grabbed a stick and stuck it in the mud in front of her, scaring off eels and stingrays, just like she had with the snakes. The problem was, those weren’t the only dangerous creatures in the water.
Juliane was still bleeding from her untreated wounds, and she was fully aware of piranhas in the Amazon. There was nothing she could do to ward them off, but the stream was thankfully too strong for them to latch onto her.
For days on end, she trudged forward, traversing the river and the mud of its banks, without a trace of humanity in sight. But then she stumbled into a problem much larger than piranhas.
Alligators were lining the riverbanks, bearing their teeth as she waded closer and closer. Hoping they wouldn’t try to attack her, Juliane pushed through. By the grace of God she made it past them. How lucky could she get?
Finally, she saw something near the water that wasn’t dangerous: a small, old, wooden fisherman’s boat. She couldn’t believe her eyes — had hunger and sleep deprivation led her to hallucinate?
No matter how exhausted she was, Juliane figured the boat belonged to a poor villager and didn’t want to steal it. Instead, drawing on her father’s advice, she poured a tiny bit of gas from the motor and used it to disinfect her wounds.
Desperately, she sought through the area around the boat. Was there any other sign of life? Of anyone that could save her? Then, she spotted something she had longed to see for 10 days: a possible shelter.
There was a hut located not far from the boat, where she could finally lay her head down. Still hungry, she tried to catch some frogs to eat but they were too fast for her, so she gave up, sank down on the floor of the hut, and finally fell asleep.
The next morning, after spending 11 days in the rainforest, Juliane opened her eyes to see three confused faces looking over her. They were lumber workers who were astonished to find a girl asleep in their hut!
Once the lumbermen realized she was not a river spirit, they helped disinfect her and clean her, and then rowed her for seven long hours downriver to the nearest village with an airfield and radio.
There, Juliane explained in her best, nearly delusional Spanish everything that had happened to her, and that her father would probably still be in Pucallpa or near the crash site looking for her.
A few hours later, she was finally able to fall into her father’s arms, who took her straight to the hospital. Based on Juliane’s recount of the events, specialists could locate every piece of the plane crash and search for survivors.
As it turned out, Juliane was the only survivor. All five crew members died, and so did 85 of the 86 passengers — including Maria Koepcke. Could Juliane ever learn to cope after experiencing this kind of trauma?
After surviving what was discovered to be the worst lightning-caused disaster in history, she recuperated for months, wracked by nightmares, survivor’s guilt, and the loss of her mother.
Still, her story spread like wildfire, and she was soon receiving messages of support, admiration, and sympathy. It lifted her spirits despite all of her pain and gave her the strength to move on with her life.
Following in her parents’ career footsteps, she returned to Germany and gained a doctorate in mammalogy (the study of mammals). When she wasn’t working on her studies, she was involved in an even more personal project.
Juliane penned an award-winning autobiography, titled When I Fell From The Sky, which was released in 2011 and chronicled her fight for survival in the Amazon. She married a German man named Erich Diller.
Those who want to see more of her story can watch the documentary Wings Of Hope by Werner Herzog, who, coincidentally, was meant to be on the same flight but missed it by a few minutes.
As of February 2019, 64-year-old Juliane specializes in bats and works as a researcher at the zoological institute in Munich. While she will never forget her days in the Amazon, she has triumphed over her trauma and come out a hero.