Juliane Koepcke: The girl who fell from the sky
Think you’ve ever taken a bad fall? Wait until you hear the story of Juliane Koepcke. Not only did she once take a tumble from 10,000 feet in the air, she then proceeded to survive 11 days in the jungle before being rescued. It all began on an ill-fated plane ride on Christmas Eve of 1971.
At the time of her near brush with death, Juliane Koepcke was just 17 years old. Though technically a citizen of Germany, Juliane was born in and grew up in Lima, Peru where she enjoyed the life of your average high school girl. That said, travel wasn’t so out of the ordinary for Juliane and her family, as both of her parents were scientists who had established a research station in the Peruvian jungle. Her father was a biologist named Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke and, at the time, he was working on in the city of Pucallpa. With Christmas right around the corner, Juliane and her mom decided that they’d catch a flight from Lima in order to spend Christmas with him in the heart of the Amazon jungle.
Worst Christmas Eve ever
Heartbreakingly enough, Juliane later revealed that her mom had really wanted to fly down a few days earlier, but that she had convinced her to book them a Christmas Eve flight instead. Though Juliane would later come to regret the decision, she actually had some pretty valid reasons for wanting to push the flight back. This was especially true considering that she had no idea the idea would go horribly wrong. See, the two days before Christmas Eve were the dates of a school dance and her high school graduation. So, understanding that the two occasions were kind of a big deal to Juliane, her mom agreed that Christmas Eve sounded like just as legit a day to take a flight as any other.
Indeed, things went pretty normally during the first thirty minutes or so of LANSA Flight 508. Juliane settled into a window seat like she always did, the stewardesses served crappy airline sandwiches and the standard boring flight routine began to unfold. It wasn’t long, however, before disaster began to strike in the form of a storm that the plane flew right into. Suddenly the sunlight streaming through the windows were replaced by dark clouds, complete with lightning flashing in all directions. At this point, the plane ride took turbulence to a whole new level as things begin to fall out of the overhead bins, sandwiches were flying all over the place, and people began to panic.
The moment that changed everything
Then, the moment that would change Juliane’s life forever arrived. As she explains it in her own words, “I see a blinding white light over the right wing. I don’t know whether it’s a flash of lightning or an explosion. I lose all sense of time. The airplane begins to nosedive. From my seat in the back, I can see down the aisle into the cockpit. My ears, my head, my whole body are filled with the deep roar of the plane. Over everything, I hear my mother say calmly, ‘Now it’s all over.'”
It’s hard to imagine that there’s any sound more terrifying than that of a plane spiraling towards its own crash, but what Juliane heard next just might have been. Suddenly everything went silent as the screams of her fellow passengers faded into terrifying silence. A look around revealed to Juliane that she was still falling, but no longer on the plane. Apparently, her seat, which she was still strapped into by the way, had come loose and gotten sucked out into the air.
As you can imagine, her seatbelt was still desperately trying to do its job but just ended up choking her so hard that she eventually passed out. When she awoke moments later, she still falling. Below her, she could see the treetops of the Peruvian rainforest as she hurtled towards their depths, probably pretty sure that they’d be her final stop. Well, it seems that Juliane had an angel looking out for her that day who had other plans. Make no mistake, she wasn’t in great shape when she woke up, but the fact that she did is nothing short of a miracle.
Welcome to the Jungle
When she finally started to regain consciousness, she had a broken collarbone, a deep gash in her leg, and a concussion that likely made all others look like a birthday party in comparison. So dazed was she, in fact, that she pretty much just had to lay there for the rest of the day and night. When she was finally able to get up and move around a bit, she tried to recall everything about surviving the jungle that her parents ever taught her which, luckily, was a lot.
For 11 days, she searched for any sign of civilization with nothing to eat but a small bag of candy that she’d discovered in the wreckage. Ultimately, her saving grace came down to a small stream that turned into a river. She recalled that their father had always told her to follow a river downstream because that’s where the people tended to be. For over a week, she walked along its bank, swam, or just flat out floated down it. To make matters even more maddening, Juliane would often spy or hear planes or helicopters overhead that were searching for the crashed plane. Tragically, none of them could see her through the forest canopy.
Fortunately, she refused to give up hope and finally, one day came upon a small hut. As it turned out, it belonged to three missionaries who would get her to a hospital. She later discovered that she was the only passenger that had survived the plane crash and went on to write an incredible memoir called When I Fell From the Sky. There was also a movie made about her incredible story of survival in 1998 called Wings of Hope.