It would have been impossible for Juliane Koepcke to know what was in store for her when she boarded LANSA Flight 508 on Christmas Eve back in 1971. The 17-year-old was flying with her mother from Lima to the eastern city of Pucallpa in Peru. They were going to visit Juliane’s father to celebrate Christmas with him.
On Christmas Eve 1971, mere hours after her high school graduation ceremony, the 17-year-old graduate and her mother boarded a plane. The plane, however, never reached its destination. What Juliane went through is something hardly anyone has ever experienced. This is a real, raw, and even inspiring tale about a teenager who willed her way out of the Amazon and lived to tell her story…
(Trigger warning: This article involves a detailed description of a plane crash – and its aftermath – from a first-person perspective.)
Juliane was born in Lima on October 10, 1954, to German zoologists who moved to Peru to study wildlife. She earned her high school diploma the day before the fateful flight. She was planning to follow in her parents’ footsteps and study zoology. Juliane went to high school several hundred miles away from where her parents were stationed.
They were, at the time, manning a remote research outpost in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. Juliane was no stranger to the harsh environment of the Amazon. She knew the inner workings of its unpredictable ecosystem. This knowledge was something that would end up saving her life.
According to Juliane, the atmosphere in the airport was completely normal. The flight was delayed, but flights in Peru were delayed all the time, so nobody thought anything of it. Juliane remembers how very crowded the airport was, as everyone wanted to go home to spend Christmas with their families.
She remembers looking outside and seeing the airplane, a turboprop Electra. She thought it looked “really neat” – to her, it “seemed perfect.” She and her mother boarded the plane, and Juliane chose to sit by the window since she loved looking out on flights. Her mother didn’t mind, and they sat in the very back, in the second-to-last row.
For the first 30 minutes of the hour-long flight, as Juliane recalls, everything was fine. The first time she noticed something wasn’t quite right was when they flew into a thunderstorm. She recalled the flight attendants serving sandwiches about a half-hour after takeoff. But once they hit the thunderstorm, Juliane knew something wasn’t right.
She saw the clouds became thicker. But since she loved flying, she didn’t pay much attention to the weather. But her mother started getting nervous and said to her daughter, “I don’t like this.” The clouds grew darker and darker, and the flight became more turbulent. They found themselves in the midst of pitch-black clouds with thunder and lightning.
Her mother wasn’t as nervous as she was concerned, Juliane explained; it wasn’t so clear from the outside. The other passengers were seemingly pretty calm, but they were probably as concerned as her mother was. They were still flying through black clouds when Juliana saw “a glistening light on the right-wing.”
That’s when her mother said: “Now it’s over.” The motor had been hit by lightning, and after that, everything happened very fast. “What really happened,” Juliane said, “is something you can only try to reconstruct in your mind.” She said that they only found out later that turboprop Electra planes weren’t designed for such heavy turbulence as their wings were too stiff.
The bolt that hit the plane likely caused it to fall apart, mid-air because “it definitely didn’t explode.” Juliane was asked how she felt about her mother’s last words to her – “Now it’s over.” Juliane said she didn’t really have the chance to think about it because once she registered it, she blacked out.
There’s one thing she does remember, though, and that’s what she heard. She heard the “incredibly loud” motor and people screaming. At that point, the plane “fell extremely steeply.” After that, it was remarkably calm — “incredibly calm,” as she put it, especially compared to the noise that came before that. The “calm” she was feeling was when she was free-falling…
Juliane explained that she was still attached to her seat. “I could only hear the wind in my ears.” Her mother and the man sitting next to the aisle had both been propelled out of their seats. She was literally free-falling from the sky. She saw the forest beneath her — like “green cauliflower, like broccoli.”
Then, she lost consciousness, regaining it only the next day. It goes without saying that what Juliane experienced is something that most individuals don’t live to speak about. Naturally, people were curious to know (later on, of course) how she felt in such an unbelievable moment. How did she feel? Was she in a state of terror or shock?
Juliane’s answer may not be what you expect, though. “I wasn’t scared,” she explained. In fact, she said she didn’t have time for that. “Even while I was falling, I wasn’t afraid.” She realized that her seatbelt was putting pressure on her stomach and that her head was upside down. It was “probably only fractions of a second,” she recalled. “Or maybe I blocked it out.”
Either way, Juliane doesn’t remember too much about the free-falling. What Juliane wasn’t aware of at the time was that every single one of the flight’s 92 passengers had died, including her mother. She was the sole survivor and just a teenager. She also didn’t know in that moment – when she realized she had actually survived – that she would spend the next 11 days, alone, in the Amazon rainforest.
The next morning, she woke up on the jungle floor. The crash had occurred at around 1:30 p.m., and she only noticed the time at 9:00 a.m. the next morning when she looked at her wristwatch. It was still intact (but stopped working later on). That’s when Juliane registered what had happened.
Because she had a serious concussion, she couldn’t sit up. Her eye was swollen, and her glasses — which she had had since she was 14 — were gone. She found herself lying underneath her seat, but she was no longer strapped in. She must have released herself from the seat because she definitely remembers being strapped in when she fell.
She also remembered seeing “a bit of the forest, but also a bit of the sky.” She was aware that she had survived the plane crash and explained how the concussion and the shock “only let me realize basic facts.” She said she didn’t really think about herself. What she was more concerned about was where her mother was.
“That’s the first thing I remember,” Juliane said. She also said that she probably woke up and lost consciousness a few times before that due to the concussion. Later on, she was able to reconstruct the event. She knew that she was attached to the seat, and “it must have turned and buffered the crash.” Otherwise, she likely wouldn’t have survived.
“I also know that I had crawled under the seat because it was raining.” This was actually something she said she would dream about. In the recurring dreams she had after the crash, she was “dirty and soaked and would only have to get up to take a shower.”
Juliane said she has a “tiny fragment of a memory” of pulling herself under the plane seat to protect herself from the rain. Her next thought was, “I just have to get up,” and when she made up her mind to do that, she woke up. When Juliane was asked what it was like to be in such a heavy concussion, she said she couldn’t really feel anything; “it was like being wrapped in cotton balls.”
She had to exert a lot of effort just to get up on her knees, and then everything blacked out again. She couldn’t see well with one eye, which was something that was explained to her much later. Juliane learned that the crash, and the difference in pressure between the inside and outside of the plane, made the capillaries in her eyes pop.
And so, the whites of her eyes were blood red. “I probably looked like a zombie from a movie.” She couldn’t feel it, however, and she wasn’t in any pain. Her head didn’t hurt either. She was dizzy, though, and every once in a while, things would turn black. At the beginning of her 11-day journey to get help, she lost consciousness all the time.
It took her half a day until she was able to get up and walk. And once she was up, her first thought was to find her mother. Juliane searched the surroundings for a full day until she realized there was no one there. She crawled around “all over the place” and called out, but she couldn’t hear anything.
Later that same day, she found a little well and remembered what her father had once told her: “If you get lost in the jungle, and you find water, you should follow it.” The logic behind her father’s advice is pretty simple: A small stream will flow into a bigger one, which will then get bigger and even bigger.
Eventually, you will find your way to help. When Juliane found that well, she had a goal. She now knew what she had to do. It was actually easy for her to leave the crash site because she didn’t find any survivors. If she had found someone who was alive and injured, she probably would have stayed. And that would have meant death for both of them.
When Juliane was asked if she came across any dead bodies when she was finding her way through the rainforest, her answer was yes – once – and it happened on the fourth day after the crash. She found a row of seats from the airplane, which were drilled into the ground. The impact clearly must have been so great that the seats were buried about three feet into the ground.
There were three people strapped into the seats, and they must have been killed instantly. For Juliane, it was an ugly moment. And it was actually the second time she had ever seen a dead body. The first time was when she was a little child. “I had seen a child that I didn’t really know, lying in state at a funeral.”
Juliane had a sense that she would find dead bodies because she heard this noise – the sound that king vultures make when they land. King vultures are the biggest new-world vultures in South America, and she knew their sound from the time she lived at her parents’ station for a year and a half.
When she heard the vultures, she figured there must be a big, dead animal or a corpse somewhere nearby. And there it was; as soon as she came around a crook of the stream, she saw the row of seats. “I couldn’t really see that much,” she described. “Only people’s feet pointing up.” She admitted to poking their feet with a stick. After all, she didn’t want to touch dead bodies.
She also explained that she couldn’t smell anything; they hadn’t been eaten yet or started to decay. She could tell, however, that one of the bodies was a woman because her toenails were polished.
The other two must have been men, judging by their pants and shoes. In that very first moment when she found them, though, she was paralyzed and couldn’t move. She couldn’t really explain it, but Juliane figured her paralysis was probably out of “respect for death and the thought that they hadn’t made it.”
After a while, Juliane continued on. It wasn’t long after this sighting that she started hearing rescue planes far above her. But she wasn’t able to catch their attention. After a while, she didn’t see them above her anymore. It was only natural for rescue missions to assume that Juliane had perished with the rest of the flight.
Those in the planes above could never have assumed that a teenager would be the sole survivor of such a crash. She knew that she was truly on her own and that people would stop trying to look for survivors. That’s when she knew they stopped searching. Juliane’s thoughts then went into different directions. She figured they had either found the plane or given up.
One can only imagine such a feeling. For Juliane, it was a feeling of hopelessness. “I wasn’t in pain or panic, but I knew that I had to rely on my own strength to get out of there.” She wasn’t aware, however, that the river she found was uninhabited.
Following the water was her only hope to find help, and considering it was such a wide river, too, it was a logical strategy. But as the days moved on, she felt that it was a bit odd that all the wild animals were so tame. She saw monkeys, martens, brocket deer — animals that she said wouldn’t normally be seen.
Juliane also recalled seeing lots of fallen trees in the water, which is an indication that a river isn’t being traveled – that people aren’t around. It made her wonder, but she said she blocked those thoughts out — she blocked out the possibility of not finding help. She was alone and had one mission: to find help.
Not only was Juliane alone and hungry, but she was also injured. She had a deep cut on her left calf, even though it wasn’t bleeding all that much. It happens to be a common thing – when people are in shock — that bleeding isn’t very strong despite the cut being deep. But since she spent a lot of time in the water, floating down the river and swimming, she ended up with a lot of scar tissue.
Then, there was her right collarbone, which was broken. She could even feel that it was broken and overlapping, but nothing came through the skin. After falling from the sky, she had only one broken bone.
Juliane did learn later what kinds of injuries she inflicted from the crash. When she finally saw a doctor, she learned that she had strained the vertebrae in her neck and had a partially fractured shin, but it was a fissure only – something she said was “not too bad.” She also tore her ACL, which was the worst of all the injuries.
She only found out about the injuries once she was safely lying in a hospital bed. It was only then that the swelling and a 104-degree fever set in. But before she could get the medical attention she desperately needed, she had to be found first. And she had to do it with all these wounds, fractures, and tears.
The only thing that concerned her was a little patch on her upper arm. It wasn’t a big wound or anything, but it was nonetheless open, and flies laid their eggs in it. Juliane was concerned about the wound because maggots had hatched underneath her skin and ate a hole into her arm.
Understandably, she was afraid they would have to amputate her arm. That is if she was rescued at all. Juliane recalled how the same thing had happened to the family dog. She knew that she needed to get the maggots out, but it was tricky. All of her makeshift methods – using sticks and the ring on her finger – weren’t working. And then she found something…
After 10 days, she found a boat with a motor and a barrel of diesel fuel. Only then was she able to clean out the wound with the same technique they had used for their dog. She poured petroleum into the wound. The liquid brought the maggots to the surface, at least most of them. All gross images aside, there is the fact that Juliane stumbled upon a boat.
She admitted that it was strange and that she couldn’t believe it at first. She described how weak she was during the early afternoon of the 10th day. She couldn’t go on, so she let herself sink into a riverbank and “doze off.” She needed a place to sleep now that the sun was beginning to set.
Her watch had already stopped working, so she had to pay attention to the sun. Juliane said she always looked for a place that had even ground, a mound or slope, or even a thick tree. That way, no animal could creep up from behind. That’s when she sat up and saw the boat, just sitting there.
She thought she was hallucinating at first or that she was starting to lose her mind. She stared at it, moving toward it slowly. After all, she was too weak to move any quicker. Once she touched it and realized it was the real deal – with a motor no less – she knew what to do (after removing the maggots from her arm).
Juliane saw a little path near her, leading into the forest. She headed toward it and tried to crawl uphill, which was treacherous considering how weak she was. It took her a long time, but once she made it above the hill, she saw a little shack. It was more like a hut without walls, with a floor made from palm bark that was covered with a roof.
It was there that she found the motor and the barrel, covered with a plastic tarp. And it was then that she treated her wound the only way she knew how. She found a little tube for sucking up the diesel. The pain, she recalled, was “agonizing.”
By the time the sun went down, she had tried to sleep underneath the tarp. It was too hard, though, so she went back down by the water and lay down in the sand. The next day, she returned to the hut because it was pouring rain. There were frogs everywhere, and her thoughts went to food. She needed to eat something… or she would die.
Juliane had always wondered how painful it would be to starve. But she said she wasn’t in any pain. “I was so apathetic and weak that I didn’t really care anymore.” Still, she tried to catch some of those frogs. It was a good thing she didn’t catch one and eat it because they were actually poisonous dart frogs, which are highly toxic.
Once the rain stopped, she should have kept going, but her “willpower was gone.” She thought, “Oh well, I might as well stay another night and go on tomorrow.” It was at that moment – when she decided to stay – that she suddenly heard voices. “I couldn’t believe it at first.” It was almost like hearing angels’ voices.
That’s when she saw three people emerge from the forest. When they saw Juliane, they “freaked out.” Her eyes were, after all, still bloodshot. Even after 10 days, they were bright red. Despite looking terrible, she spoke perfect Spanish and was able to communicate with them. She told the people what happened and who she was.
It turns out that they had heard about the crash on the radio. They gave her food and took care of her wounds. She spent the night there in that hut. The people who found her were those who lived their lives in the rainforest. As Juliane explained, they “believe in all sorts of ghosts there.” At first, they thought she was “one of these water spirits called Yemanjá. They are blonds, supposedly.”
They later told Juliane that they thought she was Yemanjá when they first saw her. The next day, they took her downstream in their boat. They reached a small town and went to a local hospital. At the hospital, there was a female pilot who was with some missionaries and was staying in a little village near Pucallpa.
The pilot took Juliane in her tiny plane, a two-propeller airliner, on a really short flight. Of course, being on a plane was the last thing Juliane wanted to do, but it was for a good reason. After the 15-minute flight, they arrived at the missionaries’ home, where they cared for her until she recuperated.
In the end, after being assumed dead for 11 days, Juliane emerged from the jungle and was finally reunited with her grieving father – who only naturally assumed he had lost both his daughter and wife. Juliane described what it was like to see her father again after all that she had been through.
“We didn’t exchange a lot of words, but we had each other again,” she stated. Their thoughts, of course, went to her mother. With Juliane’s help, they were able to reconstruct her steps and find the plane. It took a few days to find and identify the dead bodies. When they identified her mother, it became very “real that I was the only survivor and that I had lost her.”
Juliane said that her mourning and grief set in later on. After the crash, she was continuously interviewed and interrogated by the police and the air force. Her father quickly sold the story’s exclusive rights to a German magazine named Stern, which meant Juliane was bombarded with questions in interviews.
It actually served as “a massive distraction” for Juliane, but she said it was difficult for her to take the sudden fame. Everybody knew about her. She was getting letters from all over the world, which she thought was very touching. “I couldn’t understand at first why people would write to me.”
In 2000, her story was detailed in a little-known documentary called Wings of Hope, which was made for German television by Werner Herzog. For the film, she and the crew revisited the site of the crash about three decades later. “Everything was overgrown with plants,” she said, so they had to build paths to the wreckage.
The pieces of the wreckage were still lying around in the exact same spots where they had fallen. The crew cleared a landing space for a helicopter. Once they arrived, Juliane claimed that she was “pretty detached. Well, not detached, but I wasn’t upset.”
The experience of visiting the crash site all those years later taught her “a lot of new things,” as she put it. She learned things that completed her memories and experience. “It was almost therapeutic,” she noted. It was at the crash site that she told the whole story to Herzog. She was able to really focus, meaning she “didn’t really have the time to become upset.”
What stunned her the most was when they came to the wheels of the airplane. One part was lying upside down with the wheels facing up. “That was such a finite impression,” she stated. “It was like a dead animal.” What it did was symbolize finality — “that it’s really over.”
If her story wasn’t remarkable enough, Juliane explained how she didn’t have any psychological help after the event. She noted that it was the early 1970s, when “things were different, and that wasn’t even on people’s minds.” She said that she had nightmares for a long time, for years, in fact. Her grief over her mother’s death came back for a long time, too. She also admitted that the fact that she was the sole survivor is something that will always haunt her.