By, Pam Teel
A day after she graduated high school, 17 year old, Juliane Koepcke and her mother were on their way to see her father when their plane was struck by light- ning and broke apart. The two had boarded a flight in Lima, bound for Pucallpa, and then on to Panguana to visit her father for Christmas in 1971. Still belted to her seat, Juliane dropped 10,000 feet from the sky and landed in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. Out of 91people on board, she was the sole survivor.
Juliane grew up in Lima, Peru, and then moved to the Peruvian rain forest at the age of 14. This is where her parents established a Panguana Ecological Research station. After two years of living in the rain forest, Julaine went back to Lima to finish her schooling. Luckily for her, during that two years living there, her father taught her many things about the rain forest.
She remembered the airport being packed on the morning of Christmas Eve. She and her mother sat in the second-to-last row on a three-seat bench. Juliane sat by the window, her mom next to her, and another passenger in the aisle seat. Her mother was never fond of flying. The flight was only an hour long and the first half hour was uneventful but there was turbulent weather ahead as they flew into a thunderstorm.
Suddenly, daylight turned to night and there were lightning flashes from all directions. People screamed as the plane shook violently. Juliane saw a blinding white light over the right wing and heard the loud sound of the engines. As the plane started to nosedive, she heard her mother calmly say, to her, “Now it’s all over.”
For Juliane everything went silent; no more roaring of the engines, no more people shouting. She was out of the plane and all alone still belted into her plane seat. The seat belt squeezed her so tight that she lost consciousness. She came to only to realize that she was headed toward the trees. Perhaps it was lucky for her that she passed out again. When she came to, she was on the jungle floor still belted in the row of three seats. Cold, wet and unable to move, she stayed where she was until the next morning, floating in and out of consciousness.
She tried to stand up but she still couldn’t. Her left eye was swollen shut and she could barely see through her other one. Her right collarbone was broken, she had a deep gash on her calf, and a flesh wound on her arm. She knew she had to make an effort to stand up and find help. Tired and confused and most likely dealing with a concussion, she tried to remember the things her father told her about the jungle.
She licked the dew off the leaves for water and was lucky enough to find a nearby spring. She suddenly remembered her father telling her that if you ever get lost, to follow the water, for streams will turn into rivers and they will lead to out of the jungle. Little by little the spring led her to a small stream and eventually to a larger river. She knew what to eat and what not to eat and knew that most of what grows in the jungle was poisonous. Being that it was rainy season, she didn’t find much to eat.
During her 11 day trek through the jungle she found candy and some other items scattered about from the wreckage.
She knew that insects ruled the jungle, and she had encountered them all. Luckily, she lived in the jungle long enough as a child to be acquainted with the bugs and other creatures there. There was almost nothing her parents hadn’t taught her about the jungle.
Her insect bites had become infected. After nine days, several spent floating down stream; she found a boat moored near a shelter. Relying again on her father’s advice, she poured gasoline from the boat’s engine on her insect wounds, which succeeded in removing thirty-five maggots from one arm, then waited there until rescuers arrived. Hours later, the lumbermen who used the shelter arrived and tended to her injuries and bug infestations. The next morning they took her via a seven-hour canoe ride down river to a lumber station. With the help of a local pilot, she was airlifted to a hospital and then to her father in Pucallpa.
Juliane moved to Germany where she fully recovered from her injuries. She studied biology at the University of Kiel, graduating in 1980. She received a doctorate from Ludwig-Maximilian University and returned to Peru to conduct research in mammalogy. Now known as Juliane Diller, she’s as librarian at the Bavarian State Zoological Collection in Munich. Some theorize that the row of seats actually acted as a parachute and slowed down her decent. The experience prompted her to write a memoir about her survival called, When I Fell from the Sky.