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Juliane Koepcke, the Sole Survivor of a Plane Crash who Lived in the Jungle for 11 Days

How a real-life nightmare unfolded for one teenage girl.

Juliane Koepcke
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  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

The story of Juliane Koepcke’s survival is the stuff of miracles and legends. After a tragic crash on Christmas Eve of 1971, she was the only survivor out of the 91 passengers aboard LANSA Flight 508. Koepcke was only 17 at the time, yet managed to survive on her own in the Peruvian rainforest for 11 days before being rescued.

The question on everyone’s mind is always the same: how? Though a definitive answer may exceed our grasp of luck and circumstance, it is worth looking into both Koepcke’s upbringing, and the flight itself.

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Juliane and her mother Maria were traveling back from a graduation ceremony to Panguana, a research area from which her mother worked. Due to the time of year, most flights were already booked, leaving Maria with a few spare flights to choose from offered by Líneas Aéreas Nacionales S.A. (LANSA). Hans-Wilhelm, her husband, had warned her not to book a flight with LANSA, an airline known for being less than stellar. 

Everything was normal and routine as the plane took off. However, about a half hour into the flight, the aircraft attempted to fly through an unexpected turbulent storm and was struck by lightning. Koepcke later relayed the experience to BBC World Service’s Outlook program, remembering her mother’s last words: “My mother said very calmly: ‘That is the end, it's all over.'"

The plane took a nose dive and was torn apart by the punishing storm, passengers screaming as they free-fell about two miles above the Peruvian rainforest. Right before Koepcke blacked out, she recalls being outside of the plane, the horrible noise of the crash muted, with only the sound of the wind blowing past her ears. She was still strapped in her seat, which hung upside down. And then came the 9,843 foot fall to the rainforest below.

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When she awoke, her first thought was naturally, “I survived an air crash.” But she would later think back to how she must have survived, believing that she was definitely strapped into the seat as she fell. “It must have turned and buffered the crash; otherwise I wouldn't have survived.”

Juliane Koepcke
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  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

At this point, the story of her survival would already be a miracle, but it gets even more involved. Julian Koepcke was 17 and about to face the insurmountable task of surviving in the rainforest not for a mere day or two, but for 11 long days.

“Before the crash, I had spent a year and a half with my parents on their research station only 30 miles away,” said Koepcke. “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.”

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Perhaps the resourcefulness and knowledge of the forest she gained from her parents' station in Peru aided in her ability to navigate the terrain, as well as navigate her injuries and ailing mental state after such a dire experience. Her understanding of the forest kicked in, and—having lost her glasses in the crash—she used her lone shoe to test the area for snakes and other possible dangers. 

Despite a broken collarbone and some severe cuts on her legs—including a torn ligament in one of her knees—she could still walk. Before anything else, she knew that she needed to find her mother. Dead or alive, Koepcke searched the forest for the crash site. After expending much-needed energy, she found the burnt-out wreckage of the plane.

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Though other planes could be heard from above, the density of the forest canopy prevented her from making contact, much less sighting the source. At the crash site, she found a bag of candy that she rationed as a primary means of nourishment during her survival. Eventually she found water—a creek—and chose to walk through it, knowing well enough that it was safer in the water than out. Wading through the knee-high stream, Koepcke did as her father had educated her: going downstream would lead to civilization.

“It was very hot and very wet and it rained several times a day. But it was cold in the night and to be alone in that mini-dress was very difficult.” 

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The elements were affecting her body, and it wouldn’t take long for Koepcke to succumb to delirium. On the fourth day, she recognized the sound of a king vulture, which feeds on carcasses and carrion— another fact she learned from her parents. The sighting of the vulture evoked fear, because where there were vultures, there could possibly be dead bodies from the crash. Koepcke followed the vulture and discovered three passengers who were head-first into the earth, still attached to the bench. It was the first time she had seen a dead body, and it paralyzed her with fear. Worried that one of them might be her mother, she checked the bodies. But there was no sight of her mom. 

Ten days in, her delirium had finally set in, as did a paralyzing weakness, leaving her unable to do anything but drift along the water. A wound in her right arm became infested with maggots. To tend to the wound, she sucked gasoline out of a boat she discovered near a small shelter—which at the time she had thought was a mirage—and poured it into the wound. The maggots writhed and squirmed, fighting to dig deeper into the wound. Koepcke could feel them wiggle.

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She spent the night there at the boat, mostly because she didn’t want to steal it. In the morning, some fisherman found her and brought her to the nearest village. The day after that, she was flown from the village to a hospital where she reunited with her father.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Using her testimony, authorities were able to recover much of the wreck. A few days later, they recovered her mother’s body. It turned out Maria had also survived the crash, but being too badly injured to move, she succumbed to her wounds a few days later.

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Koepcke followed her parents’ footsteps, studying biology and returning to Peru to conduct research on mammalogy. Her experiences were documented in the 1974 film Miracles Still Happen by Italian filmmaker Giuseppe Maria Scotese. The harrowing events caught the attention of filmmakers like Werner Herzog, who would have taken the same flight as Koepcke while scouting locations for his film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God. It all came down to a sudden last-minute change of itinerary. 

“The thought 'Why was I the only survivor?' haunts me,” she said. “It always will.”

Many have speculated that her survival had a lot to do with both the seat, the parachute, and her location on the plane. Though one can speculate about the crash itself, they can’t diminish Koepcke’s prowess in the rainforest, exhibiting a survivalist’s forte in seeking civilization.