This 17-Year-Old Spent 11 Days Fighting for Her Life in the Amazonian Rainforest After a Fateful Flight

Mon Dec 12 2022

When a 17-year-old girl was discovered to be the sole survivor of a tragic plane crash, people had questions. Especially since she appeared to survive alone in the Amazonian rainforest for 11 days, having never been taught any survivalist skills. She was just a teenage girl who had been thrust into a near-impossible situation.

Juliane Koepcke had been on a flight with her mother in the early seventies when their plane was struck by lightning. Thanks to what her parents had taught her about the natural world, she was able to make it out of a Peruvian jungle alive after being ejected from the plane. This is her fascinating and complicated survival story.

Juliane Was Raised By Zoologists In the Rainforest

Juliane was born in 1954 to German parents Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke and Maria Koepcke. Her parents were well-respected scientists – Hans-Wilhelm was a prominent zoologist, while her mother specialized in tropical ornithology, the branch of zoology that deals specifically with birds.

Their family of three lived in the Peruvian jungle where her parents had a biological research station. They set up their station, which they named Panguana, right in the middle of the rainforest in order to better engross themselves in the environment they were studying.

She Claims She Was Raised To Be a “Jungle Child”

According to Juliane, she was a quintessential “jungle child” in her youth; how could she not be after being raised away from civilization in the Peruvian rainforest? She later explained to the BBC that she “had spent a year and a half with my parents on their research station.”

She continued: “I learned a lot about life in the rainforest, that it wasn’t too dangerous. It’s not the green hell that the world always thinks.” Juliane was also homeschooled at her parent’s research station for a number of years before being moved to the capital city of Lima for a period to study in an institution.

Hans-Wilhelm Urged His Wife and Daughter Not To Take That Flight

It was 1971 when Juliane was staying at her school in Lima, accompanied by her mother, Maria. But Christmas was just around the corner, and Maria wanted to book a flight back to Panguana so they could spend the holiday with Hans-Wilhelm. Since Juliane wanted to stay in Lima for her Year 12 dance, their only option was to fly out on Christmas Eve.

They were taking the LANSA Flight 508, which meant that they would be flying on the Lockheed L-188 Electra plane. Hans-Wilhelm had reservations as soon as he heard what plane they would be on, as he knew that this model had an extremely bad reputation – 58 out of 170 of the Electra planes had experienced malfunctions mid-flight. He tried to convince Maria not to take the flight, but with Christmas soon approaching, she chose to go ahead with it anyway.

Their Flight Had Seemed Totally Normal at First

Maria and Juliane soon boarded their flight back to the biological research station, Panguana. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Their seats were situated pretty far back, in the second to last row, and Juliana went for the window seat while her mother was seated in the middle.

The journey was going ahead as planned, with Juliane and Maria happily eating their sandwiches and looking down at the rainforest canopy beneath them toward the final stretch of the journey. Only a few minutes before they were scheduled to land did the journey take a turn for the worse.

But 15 minutes before they were supposed to land, the sky suddenly grew black. 

In a memoir titled The Girl Who Fell From The Sky, Juliane explained how it felt to be on a plane when its engine was malfunctioning. She writes, “Daylight turns to night and lightning flashes from all directions. People gasp as the plane shakes violently” when recalling the terrifying moment.

Aside from the sudden change in weather, the passengers were getting pelted by their overhead luggage. Juliane writes, “Bags, wrapped gifts, and clothing fall from overhead lockers. Sandwich trays soar through the air, and half-finished drinks spill onto passengers’ heads. People scream and cry.” 

Her Mother’s Haunting Last Words

Years after the traumatic event, she can’t stop thinking about the last thing her mother, Maria, said when they were on that ill-fated flight. Her mother had always been a nervous flyer regardless, and Juliane recalled hearing her quietly muttering under her breath, “I hope this goes alright”. 

Juliane remembered seeing a sudden flash of white light through the plane window just before the plane started to descend. And that’s when she heard the last words she would ever hear from her mother, “Now it’s all over.” Strangely, in Juliane’s memory, Maria was calm and contained when she uttered her last words.

From Above, the Trees Look Like Broccoli Heads

The next thing Juliane remembers after the flash of bright white light, everything went quiet. She couldn’t hear the screams coming from the other passengers anymore, and she couldn’t hear the plane’s rattling engine. When she opened her eyes, she saw that she had spiraled out of the plane and was falling from the sky.

Juliane recalls thinking that the tops of the trees beneath her made them look like broccoli. Later in life when talking to the New York Times, she stated, “The next thing I knew, I was no longer inside the cabin… I was outside, in the open air.” But Juliane hadn’t chosen this fate: “I hadn’t left the plane; the plane had left me.”

Laying on the Jungle Floor

Moments later, Juliane found herself sitting on the floor of a jungle. She was delirious, having just fallen from the sky, and could barely understand what had just happened. Feeling confused and dizzy, she looked down and saw that her collarbone was broken and that she had sustained large injuries on both her shoulder and one of her calf muscles.

Juliane thought that she was dealing with a concussion. She later wrote about this moment, “I lay there, almost like an embryo for the rest of the day and a whole night, until the next morning.” The thing is, Juliane needed her glasses to see, and they certainly hadn’t made it with her to the forest floor.

Juliane Remembers Something That Her Parents Had Taught Her

Even though Juliane was struggling to orient herself, she soon realized that her first priority should be finding her mother. But first, she would need to understand her current surroundings. Her parents hadn’t prepared her for a scenario like this, but they had taught her something about frog and bird sounds, just like the ones she was hearing.

Listening to the bird songs and frog croaks, Juliane was able to identify what types of animals were around her. That’s when it clicked – “I recognized the sounds of wildlife from Panguana and realized I was in the same jungle.” But she needed to be careful, as walking in the wrong direction could take her further away from the medical attention she desperately needed. After all, she was stranded, alone, and injured in the world’s biggest rainforest.

Her Father Had Once Warned Her About Shallow Water

Juliane thinks it was amazing that she was able to recall what her parents had taught her about animal sounds: “There was almost nothing my parents hadn’t taught me about the jungle. I only had to find this knowledge in my concussion-fogged head.” After listening to the wildlife, she decided to move from her the plane seat she was still attached to and attempt to regain balance.

Juliane found a packet of lolly pops that she assumed had fallen out of the plane and started consuming them. She soon stumbled upon a river and decided to get in, hoping it would carry her toward the location of people who could help her. She remembered her something her father had once said about how piranhas were only a danger to people in shallow water, so she chose to remain mid-stream.

The Jungle Was in the Middle of Its Monsoon Season, and Food Was Hard To Come By

To make matters worse, the weather was bad. The rainforest had been in the middle of its wet season, meaning that it constantly rained. As well as making Juliane feel cold and unpleasant, she also couldn’t get a fire going as all the wood was damp. And because it was the monsoon season, there wasn’t much fruit on the trees.

What little fruit there was growing on trees, Juliane wasn’t confident about eating. She recalled thinking to herself at the time, “Much of what grows in the jungle is poisonous, so I keep my hands off what I don’t recognize.” She had spent much of her youth in the Peruvian jungle, but she wasn’t recognizing the fruit around here.

Juliane Follows the Sound of Vultures and Is Led to a Grisly Scene

Three days passed and Juliane had experienced no luck in finding other humans. It was on her fourth day that she would finally find other people, but it wasn’t in the way she expected. She continued trudging through the thick Amazonian forest when suddenly she heard the sound of a flock of king vultures.

Juliane froze, understanding that there was only one reason why she would hear a large number of vultures. She saw a bunch of them circling in the short distance and walked in that direction before stumbling upon an unforgettable scene. Juliane discovered the bodies of several passengers still strapped to their plane seats, only they had been half-buried in the ground due to the force with which they landed.

She Checks for Her Mother Among the Passengers Who Didn’t Make It

Juliane started to panic upon witnessing the grisly scene of unfortunate passengers. She realized that one of these people might have been her mother, so she stepped a little closer to inspect the bodies. Of course, she could only get so close due to the king vultures.

Juliane saw that one of the passengers had been a woman. She couldn’t see the entire body, but she could see the woman’s feet. She took a glance at the woman’s toes before breathing a sigh of relief. “They were polished, and I took a deep breath. My mother never used polish on her nails.”

The Search Planes Weren’t Useful in Finding Her

Things weren’t looking up. Days after stumbling upon the passengers, Juliane heard the sounds of planes in the distance. The engine sounds were getting louder and louder, giving Juliane hope that she would be found. She understood that these were rescue planes sent to look for survivors from the crash. But it wasn’t as simple as all that.

The canopy from the tall forest trees made it near impossible for Juliane to be spotted. And there was very little that she could do draw attention to herself, as she was seriously weak, underfed, and suffering from extreme sunburn. “Ice-cold drops pelt me, soaking my thin summer dress. The wind makes me shiver to the core. On those bleak nights, as I cower under a tree or in a bush, I feel utterly abandoned.”

Juliane’s Shoulder Wound Was Infested With Maggots

If that wasn’t bad enough, Juliane was also suffering terribly from her shoulder wound. It had become infected with maggots, and she had no way of dealing with it. Several days after stumbling upon the passenger bodies, she turned a corner around a river bend and found a tiny hut decked out with large palm leaves for a roof.

Juliane got out of the river and ventured inside the small accommodation. She found a can of petrol and remembered her father using petrol to treat a wound on their family dog. She decided to pour the liquid over her shoulder: “The pain was intense as the maggots tried to get further into the wound. I pulled out about 30 maggots and was very proud of myself. I decided to spend the night there.”

Locals Found Her and Thoughts She Was a Water Goddess

As Juliane took shelter in the small hut that night, she was able to drift off to sleep. But she awoke suddenly to the sound of male voices and began to panic. She sprang up and ran out of the hut out of fear for the men, but she didn’t run far. These men were locals, and they were even more shocked than she was.

The locals were Peruvian fishermen who frequented this part of the jungle. At first, they were scared of the sight of Juliane, who was extremely thin and grubby with light blonde hair. Later in life, Juliane would explain, “They thought I was a kind of water goddess – a figure from local legend who is a hybrid of a water dolphin and a blonde, white-skinned woman.”

Spanish Was the Final Key to Her Survival, Thanks to Her Parents

When Juliane eventually approached the fishermen, she soon realized that she may have just found the key to her survival. They were Spanish speakers, and thanks to Juliane’s parents, she had acquired a decent grasp of the language. She was able to communicate with the locals and explain her situation.

She recalls telling the Peruvian fisherman in their mother tongue, “I’m a girl who was in the LANSA crash.” She continued, “My name is Juliane.” The fisherman, shocked, put Juliane in their canoe and rowed her back to civilization. If she hadn’t been able to communicate with them, it’s highly likely they wouldn’t have returned with her.

Surviving Passengers Didn’t Make It Out of the Jungle Alive

Juliane survived to tell her tale after a grueling 11 days all alone in the Amazonian rainforest. But over the years, she has struggled to understand why it was that she was the sole survivor of that fateful plane journey, LANSA flight 508. Her mother didn’t make it out alive, but Juliane’s father luckily was still alive and there for her when she returned.

Interestingly, Juliane wasn’t the only passenger thought to survive the plane crash. It was thought that a further 14 other people had managed to survive the impact but weren’t able to make it out of the jungle alive. Juliane had just enough of the right survival skills to return to civilization in one piece.

The Airline Sent the Plane Into Hazardous Weather Conditions

Juliane may have survived despite the odds, but why did the plane even malfunction in the first place? What exactly went wrong only 20 minutes before the time they were supposed to land safely? Juliane had resolved that she needed to know more information about the event that almost took her life, had taken the life of her mother, and so many others.

On the record, the cause of the plane crash was confirmed to be due to the airline’s poor decision-making. The airline had decided to send the plane out as scheduled despite knowing of the hazardous weather conditions. Officially, the blame lay with those who chose to ignore the meteorological warnings.

The Plane Was Made of Spare Parts

After a little bit of digging and a lot of time, Juliane learned of another major reason why the plane malfunctioned. The domestic passenger plane by Lineas Aereas Nacionales Sociedad Anonima was the model OB-R-941. Juliane looked into this model and discovered some very troubling information.

She found out that the OB-R-941 model was entirely comprised of spare plane parts. The aircraft’s infrastructure had been assembled together with bits and pieces from other aircraft that were deemed to be of lower quality. She realized that her flight had been doomed from the start.