Juliane Koepcke: A Plane Crash and 11 Days in the Jungle

Juliane Koepcke spent 11 days in the forest digging her way back to civilization after being the lone survivor of an aircraft accident in Peru.

When Juliane Koepcke boarded LANSA Flight 508 on Christmas Eve in 1971, she had no idea what was in store for her.

The 17-year-old was going from Lima, Peru, to the eastern city of Pucallpa to see her father, who was working in the Amazon Rainforest. Juliane Koepcke was born on October 10, 1954, in Lima. Her parents were both German zoologists who relocated to Peru to study animals.

She had graduated from high school the day before the trip and intended to pursue zoology like her parents.

The Crash Of LANSA Flight 508

The flight was supposed to last one hour. It was a nice cruise in 19F until the clouds darkened and the turbulence increased.

The plane was suddenly engulfed in a huge thunderstorm. The plane was in a whirl of pitch-black clouds, with bursts of lightning gleaming through the glass at this moment. The plane was wrecked when a lightning bolt struck the powerplant.

Then things accelerated. “You can only try to reconstruct what truly happened in your head,” Koepcke remarked. There were cries and motor noises until all she could hear was the wind in her ears.

Juliane Koepcke, still strapped to her seat, had just recognized she was free-falling for a few minutes before losing consciousness.

She fell 10,000 feet into the Peruvian rainforest.

Juliane Koepcke Survives A 10,000-Feet Fall

Juliane Koepcke has a broken collarbone and a serious calf gash but was still alive. She spent the next 11 days fighting for her life.

The concussion and shock had only enabled her to process basic facts when she awoke the following day. She’d escaped an aircraft disaster and couldn’t see out of one eye very well. She then fell back into unconsciousness. Koepcke required half a day to wake up fully.

She tried to find her mother but was unsuccessful. She discovered after she was rescued that her mother had survived the initial fall but had died from her injuries.

Koepcke had found a little well while searching for her mother.

Koepcke in Werner Herzog’s 2000 documentary “Wings of Hope” 

She was beginning to feel hopeless, but then she remembered some survival advice her father had taught her: if you find water, follow it downstream. That is where civilization is. “A tiny stream will flow into a larger one and then into an even greater one until you run into help.”

So her voyage down the creek started. She walked and swam at different times. On the fourth day of her journey, she encountered three fellow passengers still strapped into their chairs.

They were all dead, except for one woman. Juliane Koepcke prodded the woman, believing it to be her mother, but it wasn’t. A package of candy was among the passengers. It would be her only food source for the remainder of her days in the forest.

Around this time, Koepcke heard and saw rescue planes and helicopters overhead, but her attempts to attract their notice were futile.

The plane crash prompted the largest search in Peruvian history, but planes couldn’t identify wreckage from the crash, much alone a single person, due to the dense forest. She couldn’t hear them after a while and realized she was on her own to find help.

Julia Koepcke

Koepcke came across a cabin on the ninth day in the bush and opted to rest in it, where she recalled thinking she’d die alone in the wild. Then she began to hear voices. And not imaginary voices. They belonged to the hut’s three Peruvian missionaries. 

“The first man I saw seemed to be an angel,” Juliane Koepcke remarked.

The men didn’t quite feel the same way.  At first, they were scared of her, thinking she was a water spirit they believed was called Yemanjábut. Nonetheless, they allowed her to spend another night before taking her by boat to a local hospital in a tiny nearby town the next day.

Koepcke was reunited with her father after being treated for her injuries. She also helped authorities locate the jet, and they were able to find and identify the dead bodies from the disaster over a few days.

Juliane Koepcke was the only survivor of the 91 people on board.

Because she was intensively questioned by the air force and police and thrown into the media spotlight, her mourning and grief were delayed. Everything she had gone through, her injuries, her mother’s death. Juliane Koepcke developed a deep fear of flying and, for years, had recurring nightmares.

Life After The Crash

She later went on to study biology at the University of Kiel in Germany, where she earned her PhD in 1980. She returned to Peru to do a mammalogy study. Juliane Koepcke married and changed her name to Juliane Diller.

She returned to the accident site in 1998 for the documentary Wings of Hope, about her incredible story. She sat in seat 19F once more on her flight with filmmaker Werner Herzog. The event was therapeutic for Koepcke.

Julia Koepcke in 2019

It was the first time she was able to look back on the situation from a distance and, in some ways, gain closure that she still hadn’t received. The event also inspired her to write When I Fell From the Sky, a memoir about her incredible survival story.

Despite surviving the pain of the experience, she was left with one question: why was she the only survivor? It is still haunting her. “It always will,” she says in the film.

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