Few stories of human survival are as remarkable as that of Juliane Koepcke. On December 24, 1971, Koepcke, at the time a seventeen-year-old high school student studying in Lima, Peru, boarded LANSA Flight 508. She was accompanied by her mother, Maria Koepcke, a successful ornithologist and wife of Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke, also a successful ornithologist. The aircraft on which they were traveling, a Lockheed L-188A Electra, was to take them from Lima to Iquitos, with a stopover along the way in Pucallpa. They were to be met at their destination by Hans-Wilhelm, the plan being to spend Christmas together as a family.
Aboard the plane were 86 passengers and six crew members, making a total of 92 people. All was fine for the first 25 minutes of the flight. Then, suddenly, the plane entered heavy storm clouds and began to experience strong turbulence, causing luggage and other items, including Christmas presents and cakes, to be thrown around the cabin. Recalls Koepcke: “My mother and I held hands but we were unable to speak. Other passengers began to cry and weep and scream.”
As the chaos persisted, Koepcke and her mother saw flashes of lightning around the plane. A moment later, while flying approximately 21,000 feet above mean sea level over a mountainous region of the Amazonian jungle, the plane was struck directly by lightning, igniting the fuel tank in the right wing and causing the wing to separate. Koepcke remembers seeing the bright flash of the strike. The plane, a fiery disintegrating wreck, began to plummet violently earthward.
Koepcke found herself strapped to her seat bench, flipped head over heels, the wind whistling in her ears as she continued to descend. “I could see the canopy of the jungle spinning towards me,” she recalls. “Then I lost consciousness…” Koepcke woke up the following day. She remembers opening her eyes to see the canopy above her and thinking: “I survived an air crash.” Remarkably, despite having fallen a distance of more than two miles, she sustained only minor injuries: a broken collarbone, a ruptured ligament in her knee, and some deep cuts on her legs. It was later discovered that, of the 92 people aboard the plane, Koepcke was the sole survivor.
Wearing nothing but a mini-dress, Koepcke began to make her way through the dense jungle. She had bare feet, having lost one of her sandals during the crash. Also missing were her glasses, which she wore for acute short-sightedness. She used the only sandal she had “to test the ground ahead of me as I walked.” Fortunately, having spent over a year living with her parents at their research station in the jungle, she knew how to survive in such an environment. After finding a small creek, she began to follow it, knowing that the creek would lead to a stream and that the stream would lead to a river where she had a good chance of finding help. Her only source of sustenance was a bag of sweets she’d found at the crash site.
During her lonely and perilous trek through the jungle, she came across wreckage and corpses from the plane crash. The body of her mother was nowhere to be seen. Koepcke managed to avoid being bitten or attacked by crocodiles, snakes, piranha, and devil rays. She had less luck, however, with flies and other insects, which laid maggots in her wounds and bit her ferociously, causing her great discomfort and depriving her of sleep. After ten days, Koepcke, starved, fatigued, and in need of medical attention, came across a small boat and a hut on the river. There she remained until the following day, whereupon she was discovered by a group of Peruvian lumberjacks.
Her incredible story of survival caused a sensation in the media, and is the subject of a documentary film by Werner Herzog called Wings of Hope (2000). That Koepcke (today Juliane Diller) survived the accident and managed to be found is nothing short of a miracle. One is inclined to feel that her survival had more to do with fate than pure dumb luck.