The Incredible Survival Story Of Juliane Koepcke

“I was definitely strapped in [the airplane seat] when I fell. It must have turned and buffered the crash, otherwise I wouldn’t have survived.” —Juliane Koepcke, describing her fall

In A Nutshell

In 1971, a plane crashed in the Peruvian jungles on Christmas Eve. All aboard were killed, except for 17-year-old Juliane Koepcke. After free-falling more than 3 kilometers (almost 2 miles) while still strapped into her seat, she woke up in the middle of the jungle surrounded by debris from the crash. Suffering from various injuries, she searched in vain for her mother—then started walking. Ten days later, she found a boat, and waited for its owners to return. They finally did.

The Whole Bushel

Juliane Koepcke and her mother knew that the airline they were traveling with had a less-than-stellar reputation, but it was Christmas Eve, and that didn’t matter. The airline had been so plagued by difficulties, in fact, that it had recently lost two of its planes in crashes. But they wanted to spend Christmas with Juliane’s father, so they got on the Lockheed Electra (similar to the model pictured above) bound for Pucallpa from Lima.

Halfway through the hour-long flight, the plane plummeted from the sky. It would be found later that the plane had been hit by lightning, tearing off an entire wing. Just what had happened was probably the farthest thing from the 17-year-old girl’s mind, though, as suddenly she found herself falling to the Earth.

She faded in and out of consciousness, but she would never forget the last words that she heard her mother say.

“That is the end, it’s all over.”

Somehow, miraculously, Koepcke woke the next morning. Later, she would describe her injuries as not very serious, but we’re pretty sure that any non-superhuman would call a broken collarbone, concussion, ruptured knee ligaments, and large open wounds down her arms and legs something a little more drastic than “not serious.”

She spent some time searching for her mother, finding the bodies of other passengers that had hit the ground so hard they were nearly buried in it. Unable to find her mother and realizing that she needed help, she headed off into the rain forest.

The teenager was amazingly well-equipped to deal with the situation she’d found herself in. Her mother, an ornithologist, and her father, a zoologist, had been living their lifelong dream of manning a research station deep in the middle of the rain forest. Along the way, they taught their daughter everything they knew, probably never imaging that it would save her life one day.

She found a stream, and remembering her father’s advice that people always lived near water, she started following it. She walked for a staggering 10 days, prodding the fallen leaves to look for snakes, somehow avoiding the worst of the piranha-filled waters, walking past crocodiles sunning themselves on the riverbanks.

The only food she had was a small bag of candy. She’d also lost her glasses and was wearing only a light, short, sleeveless dress. On the fourth day, she saw vultures circling the area of the crash, and knew what they were there for. Her own flesh was far from healthy, her wounds filling with maggots.

On the 10th day, she found a boat. Siphoning gasoline from the engine, she poured it on her wounds to help kill the maggots, and then stayed with the boat in hopes that someone would find her.

Someone did. The men who came were nothing less than angels, she said, who first mistook her for a water goddess. When she explained who she was and what happened, though, they brought her food, saw to her injuries, and took her to safety.

Her mother wasn’t found until January 12; she had survived the crash and the fall, but had been too injured to move, ultimately dying several days later.

Today Koepcke, now married, is a librarian at the Zoological Center in Munich. She still regularly flies.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo credit: Trotterjt
CNN: Survivor still haunted by 1971 air crash
BBC Magazine: Juliane Koepcke: How I survived a plane crash
When I Fell From the Sky, by Juliane Koepcke