On the day of December 24th, 1971, LANSA Flight 508 took off from Lima, Peru to Iquitos, Peru, via Pucallpa, Peru. 17 year old Juliane Koepcke was travelling to Pucallpa, with her mother, to meet up with her father at the family’s nature preserve. Juliane, the night before had just graduated from her high school.
(The picture here is of Juliane, the night before the crash at her prom)
“’It was Christmas Eve 1971 and everyone was eager to get home, we were angry because the plane was seven hours late.’
The flight was supposed to last for less than an hour and for the first 25 minutes everything was fine, Koepcke recalled.
‘Then we flew into heavy clouds and the plane started shaking. My mother was very nervous. Then to the right we saw a bright flash and the plane went into a nose dive. My mother said: This is it!’”
According to the report, the aircraft, flying at 21,000 feet was struck by lightning, after the pilots, under pressure to keep to the schedule, flew directly into a massive thunderstorm. The plane went into a dive and disintegrated at over 10,000 feet.
In her words:
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 way later, the next day.
-Juliane, in a 2000 German Documentary
How exactly she survived the free-fall is unknown, but it is believed that the wreckage her seat was attached to was spinning around like a helicopter, slowing her descent. Updrafts from the massive thunderstorm also helped to slow down the descent. Finally, she landed in an area full of thick soft branches and brush.
Juliane had significant injuries, but was still able to be mobile:
Her injuries from the fall included a broken collar bone, a torn ACL, a strained vertabra in her neck, a partially fractured shin, several deep lacerations on her arms and legs, and one eye was swollen shut due to popped capillaries as a result of rapid decompression of the aircraft.
Juliane also recalled:
I was wearing a very short, sleeveless mini-dress and white sandals. I had lost one shoe but I kept the other because I am very short-sighted and had lost my glasses, so I used that shoe to test the ground ahead of me as I walked.
I found a small creek and walked in the water because I knew it was safer.
At the crash site I had found a bag of sweets. When I had finished them I had nothing more to eat and I was very afraid of starving.
Juliane continued for days, struggling within the jungle.
“I found another row of seats with three dead women still strapped in. They had landed head-first and the impact must have been so hard that they were buried almost two feet into the ground.
I was horrified — I didn’t want to touch them but I wanted to make sure that my mother wasn’t one of them. So I took a stick and knocked a shoe off one of the bodies. The toe nails had nail polish on them and I knew it could not have been my mother because she never used nail polish.”
On the 10th day, she found signs of civilization:
By the 10th day I couldn’t stand properly and I drifted along the edge of a larger river I had found. I felt so lonely, like I was in a parallel universe far away from any human being.
I thought I was hallucinating when I saw a really large boat. When I went to touch it and realised it was real, it was like an adrenaline shot.
But [then I saw] there was a small path into the jungle where I found a hut with a palm leaf roof, an outboard motor and a litre of gasoline.
I had a wound on my upper right arm. It was infested with maggots about one centimetre long. I remembered our dog had the same infection and my father had put kerosene in it, so I sucked the gasoline out and put it into the wound.
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.
The next day I heard the voices of several men outside.
The lumbermen who found her treated her wounds and took her downstream, where she was then airlifted to Pucallpa. She would later find out, that she was the only survivor of the crash. Her mother and as many as 14 other passengers had survived the fall into the Amazon, but had died of their injuries. Out of the 92 people aboard, only she was alive.
She went on to marry, and graduate with a degree in biology, fully recovering from her injuries. She has studied mammalogy extensively, and is currently a librarian at the Bavarian State Zoological Collection in Munich.