When she was 17, Dr Juliane Koepcke was the sole survivor of a plane crash in Peru. Picture: Getty Images
When she was 17, Dr Juliane Koepcke was the sole survivor of a plane crash in Peru. Picture: Getty Images

Amazing story of teen who fell 3km from plane

At first, 17-year-old Juliane Koepcke wasn't really bothered by the thunderstorm she could see out the plane window.

But her mother Maria, who was sitting next to her on the flight from Peru's capital Lima to the city of Pucallpa in the Amazonian rainforest, grew a little nervous.

"I don't like this," her mum said as they were rocked around in bad turbulence.

The pair were on their way to Pucallpa to be reunited with Juliane's father Hans-Wilhelm on Christmas Eve, 1971. The German family lived in Peru, where Hans-Wilhelm and Maria, both zoologists, worked at a research outpost in the rainforest. Hours before the flight, Juliane had been at her high school graduation.

She had no idea the storm would cause the plane to nosedive towards a fiery crash. That she would be its only miracle survivor and that survival would come after a gruelling battle.

'THIS IS THE END, IT'S ALL OVER'

As LANSA flight 508 flew through the thunderstorm, the plane with 91 people on board was battered with severe turbulence. Luggage, including Christmas presents, bounced around the cabin.

Within moments, lightening struck the Lockheed L-188A Electra and caused a fire.

That's when Juliane became scared.

"My mother and I held hands but we were unable to speak. Other passengers began to cry and weep and scream," Juliane told the BBC in 2012.

"After about 10 minutes, I saw a very bright light on the outer engine on the left.

"My mother said very calmly: 'That is the end, it's all over'. Those were the last words I ever heard from her."

Later, Juliane would learn the American-built turboprop plane, with its small, rigid wings, wasn't designed to withstand extreme turbulence.

As the fire took hold, a wing broke off and the plane began to disintegrate, plunging into a nose-first free fall towards the jungle below.

All 86 passengers and six crew were likely doomed. Some people got sucked out of the plane as it broke apart mid-air.

"I heard the incredibly loud motor and people screaming and then the plane fell extremely steeply," Juliane told VICE in 2010.

"And then it was calm - incredibly calm compared with the noise before that. I could only hear the wind in my ears. I was still attached to my seat.

"My mother and the man sitting by the aisle had both been propelled out of their seats. I was freefalling, that's what I registered for sure. I was in a tailspin.

"I saw the forest beneath me - like 'green cauliflower, like broccoli', is how I described it later on."

After a terrifying free fall of about 2987 metres, the teenager landed on the floor of the Amazon jungle.

It has been suggested the row of seats Juliane was strapped to, which were empty on either side of her, slowed her fall enough for her to survive it. It also likely broke her fall when she hit the ground.

When she landed she blacked out and woke up the next morning, on Christmas Day.

 

Flight 509, operated by Peruvian airline LANSA, was flying from Lima to Iquitos, with a stop in Pucallpa, where Juliane and her mother were heading. The X marks the approximate location of the crash. Picture: Wikimedia Commons
Flight 509, operated by Peruvian airline LANSA, was flying from Lima to Iquitos, with a stop in Pucallpa, where Juliane and her mother were heading. The X marks the approximate location of the crash. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

 

A BATTLE FOR SURVIVAL

"I had a serious concussion, so I couldn't sit up. My eye was swollen," Juliane told VICE of the moment she woke up.

"I was lying underneath my seat and I wasn't strapped in anymore.

"I could see a bit of the forest but also a bit of the sky. I knew that I had survived a plane crash. The concussion and the shock only let me realise basic facts.

"I didn't really think about myself. I was more concerned about where my mother was."

It took Juliane half a day to find the strength to get up and walk around. Remembering basic survival lessons from her father, she found a stream and followed it.

She was injured - she had a broken collarbone, a strained vertebrae, a partially fractured shin, a cut on her arm and a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Because of the sudden change in pressure when she was ripped out of the plane, the capillaries in her eyes popped, making her look like "a zombie from a movie", she said.

But she was able to walk around in search of help, surviving off a bag of lollies she found among the wreckage.

On the fourth day, she came across crash victims.

"I found a row of seats, drilled into the ground," she said. "The impact must have been so hard that it drilled itself three feet deep into the ground.

"The three people strapped into these seats must have been killed right away. That was an ugly moment."

She said she saw a woman's bare feet pointing up in the air and thought it was her mother,

but then realised the woman's toenails were painted and her mother never painted her toenails.

Juliane continued looking for help in the jungle, staying close to the riverbank, battling against the harsh heat and rain. She was familiar with the Amazonian jungle, thanks to the work of her parents.

But conditions were horrible. At one point, she realised flies had laid eggs in the wound in her arm, causing dozens of maggots to hatch underneath her skin and eat a hole through it.

After 10 days, she came across a motorised boat on the river and a barrel of diesel fuel. She used the fuel to disinfect the wound and kill off most of the maggots.

She also found a small shack, where, starving and exhausted, she took shelter. It was there, 11 days after the crash, some local workers found her.

They gave her food, helped treat her wounds, and took her to a hospital where she was finally reunited with her panicked father.

"He could barely talk and in the first moment we just held each other," Juliane told the BBC.

"For the next few days, he frantically searched for news of my mother. On 12 January they found her body.

"Later I found out that she also survived the crash but was badly injured and she couldn't move. She died several days later. I dread to think what her last days were like."

 

Dr Juliane Koepcke pictured in 2013. Picture: Getty Images
Dr Juliane Koepcke pictured in 2013. Picture: Getty Images

 

Peruvian investigators found the crash to be caused by "intentional flight into hazardous weather conditions", perhaps due to the pressure to keep up with busy schedules during the Christmas holidays despite the dangerous weather conditions.

Juliane is now a married mammalogist, having followed her parents' footsteps into biology. She has written a book about her incredible story, which has also been made into a feature-length film and documentary.

While she eventually left Peru for Germany, she was famous in the South American country as a "miracle" and received hundreds of letters from strangers.

But she said the trauma of the crash was difficult to recover from.

"Of course 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," Juliane told VICE.

"The thought - why was I the only survivor? - haunts me. It always will."


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