In 1971, a plane with 92 passengers on board disappeared over the Amazon. It was struck by lightning, and no survivors emerged after an intensive 10-day search.
Then one girl walked out of the jungle.
Juliane Koepcke and her mother had boarded a Lansa airlines flight in Lima, Peru on Christmas Eve to visit her father, a zoologist, at his research station in the Amazon forest.
The plane flew across the Andes mountains, when it encountered a storm and heavy turbulence. Then it was struck by lightning. Her mother turned to her and said, “Hopefully, this goes alright.”
An engine was damaged, and a wing had been ripped off. They could see a bright light as the plane was being torn apart. Other passengers began to weep and cry and scream. Christmas presents flew through the air.
Then her mother said, very calmly: “This is the end, it’s all over.”
“Those were the last words I ever heard from her,” she later recalled.
She and her mother were scared silent, grasping on to each other’s hands.
As the plane was pulled to pieces Juliane, still strapped to her seat, plummeted down toward the earth—from 2 miles up in the air.
Supposedly, crashing through all those layers of tree branches and leaves, strapped to an entire row of seats alone, had slowed her down enough that she survived without fatal injury.
Juliane woke up the next morning with a broken collarbone and deep cuts down her legs, but very much alive.
She shouted for her mother but couldn’t find her. She couldn’t find any other survivors. Juliane remembered thinking, “I survived an air crash.”
Alone and wearing nothing but a sleeveless mini-dress and one white sandal, she decided to make her way through the jungle.
Juliane, 17, was 14-years-old when her parents decided to move to the Amazon. Both her parents were zoologists and Juliane had already spent a year and a half living in the jungle, home-schooled and learning much about the habitat.
She knew that if she walked downstream, she would eventually find civilization. She knew if she stayed in the mid-stream she would avoid piranhas in shallow water. She knew which plants were poisonous, and which were safe.
So she picked up the bag of sweets she found at the crash site, then looked for a creek that she could follow.
It was a hot, rainy, and difficult trek, she remembered. On the fourth day, she heard a vulture, and felt a wave of terror.
“I was afraid because I knew they only land when there is a lot of carrion and I knew it was bodies from the crash,” Juliane later wrote. “When I turned a corner in the creek, I found a bench with three passengers rammed head first into the earth.”
“I was paralyzed by panic. It was the first time I had seen a dead body.”
She feared it was her mother, then realized it wasn’t. Immediately, she felt relieved. Then she felt ashamed for that. She continued walking.
By the 10th day, she was barely conscious, hardly standing, and practically drifting along the edge of a large river she found.
“I felt so lonely, like I was in a parallel universe far away from any human being.”
She saw a large boat and thought, at first, it was a hallucination. Then her eyes focused and she saw behind it a small path leading into the jungle—leading up to a hut.
Inside, she found an outboard motor and some gasoline, which she used to clean out her now maggot-infested wound.
The next day, she woke up to the sound of voices outside.
“It was like hearing the voices of angels.”
The men who discovered her were in shock. She quickly introduced herself in Spanish.
“I’m a girl who was in the LANSA [plane] crash. My name is Juliane.”
She was reunited with her father that same day.
“He could barely talk and in the first moment we just held each other,” she wrote. Her father was immensely heartbroken. He had warned her mother not to fly with Lansa airlines, which didn’t have the best reputation.
Over the next few days, they desperately searched for Juliane’s mother, until they finally found her body. They later learned that she had survived the crash too, but was severely injured and died after a few days.
Juliane became known as a local miracle girl, and she was sent letters by people from all over. “Some of the letters were simply addressed ‘Juliane—Peru’ but they still all found their way to me,” she told CNN.
But it took her decades to come to terms with her story.
“I am making peace with my own past,” she said 40 years later, at 57. Her story has become the subject of a documentary, and now a memoir.
Juliane is now a biologist and librarian at the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology. She returns often to Panguana, the research station where her parents worked, to welcome scientists from around the world.
“Sometimes I feel unlucky that I have to carry this heavy weight because it is a heavy weight for the psyche,” she told Telegraph. “It’s always there, like a visitor that entered my life and although I reject him, he is there. I cannot push him away.”
“But I am healthy and I can do work that I love and this is only possible because I survived – so I am lucky too.”