Miracle In The Jungle

This is the true story of a 17 year old girl who not only survived a 2 mile fall from a plane without a parachute, but then trekked alone, barefoot, with no survival equipment, clothed only in a mini-dress, for 10 days through the deadly Peruvian rain-forest.

Juliane Koepcke at her high
school graduation
On Christmas Eve, 1971, just a few hours after attending her high school graduation, 17 year old Juliane Koepcke and her mother, Maria, got on a flight from Lima, Peru to Pucallpa. The two were traveling to join Juliane’s father, Hans-Wilhelm, a famous German zoologist who was working at a remote research station in the rain-forest.

30 minutes into the flight, the plane entered very thick, black clouds. "The clouds became darker and darker and the flight became more turbulent. Then we were in the midst of pitch-black clouds and a proper storm with thunder and lightning,” said Koepcke. “It was pitch-black all around us and there was constant lightning. Then I saw a glistening light on the right wing. The motor was hit by lightning.“

Planes get struck by lightning all the time with no real problems, but this time there was a big problem.  Directly after the wing was struck, the aircraft was ripped apart because the Electra aircraft they were on had very rigid wings and wasn't built for flying in heavy turbulence. The struck wing fell off and the plane was then simply ripped apart in mid-air.

The last words Koepcke ever heard from her mother was when the lightning struck the wing, she shouted, “it’s all over! We're done for!” Still strapped to her seat, Juliane Koepcke was thrown from the aircraft and fell approximately 2 miles into the dense, green Peruvian rain-forest.
 
"I heard the incredibly loud motor and people screaming and then the plane fell extremely steeply. 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 free-falling, 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. Then I lost consciousness and regained it only way later, the next day."
 
Koepcke became the sole survivor of Lansa flight 508, all 91 other passengers and crew died. It isn't known what exact factors played into Juliane’s surviving the fall. Some speculated her fall was slowed by the row of seats she was strapped to rotating like a helicopter, and then in what can only be called a miracle, helped cushion her landing thanks to striking the dense forest perfectly horizontal with seat bottoms hitting first.

For the next 19 hours, Juliane lapsed in and out of consciousness. She awoke when it began to rain and managed to unstrap herself from her seat and crawl under it for shelter.  Finally, about 9:00am, she became lucid and in somewhat of a daze, took stock of her situation. She was lying on the ground, dressed in only a sleeveless mini-dress and was missing one of her sandals and glasses. While she didn't realize all her injuries at the time, she had survived the fall with a broken collar bone; a torn ACL; one of her eyes swollen shut; the capillaries in her eyes had popped (due to rapid decompression from the plane); a strained vertebrae in her neck; a partially fractured shin; and several deep cuts on her arms and legs.

It took her half the day just to be able to stand without getting too dizzy, but eventually she managed it and set out to find her mother, searching for a full day before giving up. During her search for her mother she found a bag of hard candy, which came to be her only food during her 10-day journey. She also stumbled across a small stream. Her father had once given her the very good advice that if she were ever lost in the rain-forest and came across a stream or river, she should follow it downstream because people tend to live on or near water, following a river long enough, should get you to civilization eventually.

So what did this barely-clothed, severely injured teenage girl do next? With her small bag of candy in one hand and her one remaining shoe in the other, she set out to find her way out of an almost impenetrable jungle and back to civilization.  

She knew from experience that snakes particularly liked to lay camouflaged under dry leaves, so when she wasn't walking in the water, she used her shoe, thrown before her, to test the ground for snakes (she couldn't see very well due to missing her glasses). Luckily, she never encountered any, that she saw at least, and she walked as much as possible in the stream as it was an easier way to go, rather than through the dense foliage. Within a day, the stream emptied into a small river and she began following this waterway. The going was a little bit easier, but she had to constantly keep a sharp eye out for crocodiles, water snakes, and other deadly aquatic wildlife.

Within 2 days, she started hearing King vultures around her, the sound of which she recognized from living at her parent’s research station a year and a half before, only about 30 miles from where the plane crashed. Because King vultures usually only land when there is carrion around, she figured there must be dead bodies from the plane crash that they were feeding on. She didn't see any bodies during the first 3 days, but on the fourth, she finally spotted some; three other passengers still strapped to their seats and rammed several feet deep, headfirst into the ground.

"I couldn't really see that much, only people's feet pointing up. I poked their feet with a stick. I couldn't touch the dead bodies. I couldn't smell anything and they hadn't been eaten yet or started to decay. I mean, sure, decay must have started, but I couldn't notice it. I could tell it was a woman because she had polished toenails and the others must have been two men, judging by their pants and shoes. I moved on after a while, but in the first moment I found them, it was like I was paralyzed."

During her trek, her wounds became infected and a large cut on her right arm was infested with maggots. This is something she’d seen happen to her dog before, with near disastrous results for the dog. Try as she might, though, she couldn't manage to get the maggots out as they were too deep in the wound. “I had this ring that was open on one side that you could squeeze together, and I tried with that. It didn't work because the hole was so deep. So I tried with a stick, but that didn't work either.”

On the tenth day she came across a boat. She was somewhat delirious by that time and thought it was a mirage until she finally came up to it and touched it. Next to the boat was a path, which she crawled up. At the end of the path was a small hut that was used by lumbermen. Empty at the time, she found an outboard motor and some diesel fuel in a barrel. She used a tube to suck out some of the fuel from the barrel and poured that on her maggot infested wound, something her father had done to her dog, though with kerosene. Although extremely painful, this worked and the maggots, after initially trying to burrow deeper into her arm, eventually came to the surface and she was able pick them out.

 She then tried to sleep in the hut, but with her wounds, found the ground to be too hard, so she went back down to the river side and spent the night laying in the sand. The next day she woke up and, hearing frogs all around her, tried to catch some to eat. Luckily for her she was unable to as they were poisonous dart frogs. At this point, she was debating whether to take the boat or not, something she didn't want to do as it was stealing, but ultimately decided to spend another night at the hut and leave in the boat the next day.

She ended up not having to do this because she soon heard voices, “like hearing angels’ voices”. Three men came out of the forest and spotted her. At first they thought she was a “Yemanj√°”, a type of blond, pale skinned water spirit. ”When they saw me, they were pretty freaked out.” However, she explained what had happened and how she got there and they had heard of the plane crash so they accepted her tale. They then fed her and cared for her wounds as best they could and took her downstream on a seven hour boat ride to a lumber station.

Once there, a local pilot knew of some missionaries nearby running a hospital in Pucuallpa. The pilot took her on a 15 minute flight to the hospital and the day after her rescue, she was reunited with her father. She then helped the search parties locate the crash site. On January 12th, they finally discovered her mother’s body. Like Juliane, her mother had apparently survived the fall. However, her injuries prevented her from moving and she ended up dying several terrible days later.

Juliane returned to the still debris littered crash site 40 years later.
Today, Juliane is alive and well, happily married with a family and has a PhD in Zoology. She is a librarian at the Bacarian State Zoological Collection in Munich and is living proof that miracles still happen.

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