Juliane Koepcke was only seventeen years old when the plane she was travelling in was struck by lightning and fell into the Amazon. The plane crash was devastating and she, the lone survivor. Koepcke's survival story has inspired people for years and after listening to podcast that delved into her story, I decided to share it with you.
Hailing from Lima, Peru, Juliane Koepcke did not have the life of a typical seventeen year old.
She was born to famed biologist Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke and ornithologist Maria Koepcke. The pair were accomplished academics who spent much of their lives studying the Peruvian and South American fauna and bird species.
At fourteen Juliane went with her parents to live on Panguana, a biological research station the couple had founded to study the ecosystem.
Panguana is located in the low land rainforest at the western foothill of the El Sira mountain range east to the Andes. Juliane thrived and went to 'jungle school', learning survival techniques. In an interview with the Telegraph she described the outside of their home being a tangle of vines, trees, birds and howler monkeys.
There was no running water but there was a routine of shaking out your boots in the morning to remove poisonous spiders. Her parents loved it and Juliane grew to love it too.
"I had a very strict programme. My father taught me maths and then every morning I went with my parents into the forest. This is when she learnt the lessons that would save her life: always pick your feet up from the ground to avoid tripping over a root; if you’ve lost your way, follow a flow of water and you will find your way out."
Koepcke lived here for 18 months, home-schooled by her parents.
However, in order to receive her high school diploma, Juliane had to return to Lima and take her exams. On December 23, 1971, she graduated. Her mother was working in Lima at the time and wanted the two of them to catch a flight back to Panguana on the 19th or or 20th. Juliana was adamant that she must attend the graduation ball and ceremony. Her mother understood and they booked a flight to return Christmas Eve.
With the holiday season upon them, there were few flights available and the pair were forced to fly with Lansa, who had a bad reputation. Juliane's father had even gone so far as to ask them never to fly with the blighted airline. Unfortunately the desire for the family to be together during Christmas held more weight than his words.
At 11 am on December 24, the mother and daughter boarded LANSA Flight 508. Juliane sat two rows from the back in the window seat while her mother was in the middle seat. Only 15 minutes before landing, the plane began to shake with turbulence. They had entered a storm.
Christmas presents were strewn across the aisles as luggage was tossed from the overhead bins. There was a blinding white light when lightning struck the plane. People cried and Juliane's mother knew it was bad.
"She said very calmly, “Now it’s all over."
Juliane remembers the plane began a nosedive, but the next thing she remembers she was outside the plane, in the jungle. Unsure of how she may have survived, Juliane has several theories but it is most likely that the trees where she fell were so dense that they slowed her descent, allowing her to survive the fall from the sky.
The spot she had crashed was only 30 miles from Panguana making Juliane familiar with the jungle and able to navigate it's dangers better than someone who was not. 'I felt no fear because it was the same environment I knew from home,’ she sais to the Telegraph . Her first priority was to find her mother. Surviving on candy she found at the crash site, Juliane knew how important it was to find help.
Using advice she learned from her father, Juliane headed downsteam from the crash, in knee high water, hoping it would lead her to civilization. She knew that pirhanas would be in shallow water and that local fauna was poisonous, but water from the creek was safe. Eventually she heard the calls of hoatzins, a tropical bird found in the Amazon, and from knowledge passed down from her mother, abandoned the creek in search of the river the birds would inhabit.
She wandered for ten days, lucky not to have been stung by a stingray or attacked by an alligator.
Eventually she came across a boat, which was moored by a shelter. There she was able to use gasoline from the boat's fuel tank to clear the maggots from wounds she sustained in the crash. Julianne had a broken collarbone, a gash to her right arm, and her right eye swollen shut. She remained at the shelter, even though she did not want to. The next morning, a small group of local fishermen discovered her and brought her to their village. This happened purely by chance, as they did not visit the logging camp often. The following day, she was flown to a hospital in the Peruvian city of Pucallpa and reunited with her father.
For the next few days, her father frantically searched her mother. Sadly, on the 12th of January they found her body.
Later in life, when reading letters her father had sent to friends, Juliane discovered that her mother had survived the initial crash, but later succumbed to the Amazon. 'My mother wasn’t dead when she fell from the plane,’ she revealed to the Telegraph. 'My father thought she’d survived for nearly two weeks – perhaps up to January 6, because when he went to identify her body it wasn’t as decomposed as you’d expect in that environment – it’s very warm and humid and there are lots of animals that would eat dead bodies. He thought she’d broken her backbone or her pelvis and couldn’t move.’
Juliane moved back to Germany to recover from her injuries at her father's wishes. She was not happy about the move. "'I was very angry,’ she says. 'Panguana and my school were the only things left for me. It took about two years to accept it."
Following in her parents footsteps, Juliane studied biology and after receiving her doctorate, she returned to Panguana in 1981 to study bats for her PhD.
In 1998, Juliane returned to the crash site with director Werner Herzog as part of a made-for-TV documentary called Wings of Hope. In the film they relive the ordeal, taking the same flight, sitting in the same seats, visiting the crash site and walking the river routes where she traveled for 10 days on foot.
"I had nightmares for a long time, for years, and of course the grief about my mother's death and that of the other people came back again and again. The thought Why was I the only survivor? haunts me. It always will."
Juliane Koepcke is still alive today, but her last name is now Diller. Since 1989 Juliane Diller has been working at the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology in Munich (ZSM), where she is the deputy director and heads the museum’s large special library. She and her husband have been living near Munich for over 30 years. In 2000, after the passing of her father, Juliane took over as Panguana’s director and main organizer of research expeditions to the station.
You can watch Wings of Hope, for free via YouTube, below: