I met with Juliane Koepcke (64) at the Bayerische Zoologische Staatssammlung in Munich. Definitely the most amazing life story I ever heard of!
The LANSA Lockheed Electra OB-R-941 commercial airliner was struck by lightning during a severe thunderstorm and broke up in mid-air, disintegrating at 3.2 km (10,000 ft). Koepcke, who was 17 years old, fell roughly 3 km (2 mi) to earth still strapped into her seat, survived with a broken collarbone, a gash to her right arm, and her right eye swollen shut. “I was definitely strapped in [the airplane seat] when I fell,” she said later. “It must have turned and buffered the crash; otherwise I wouldn’t have survived.”
Her first priority was to find her mother, who had been seated next to her, but her search was unsuccessful. She later discovered that her mother had initially survived the crash, but died from her injuries several days later.
Koepcke found some sweets which were to become her only food. After looking for her mother and other passengers, she was able to locate a small stream. She waded through knee-high water downstream from her landing site, relying on the survival principle her father had taught her, that tracking downstream should eventually lead to civilization. The stream provided clean water and a natural path through the dense rainforest vegetation.
During the trip, Koepcke could not sleep at night because of insect bites, which became infected. After nine days, several spent floating downstream, she found a boat moored near a shelter, where she found the boat’s motor and fuel tank. Relying again on her father’s advice, Koepcke poured gasoline on her wounds, which succeeded in removing thirty-five maggots from one arm, then waited until rescuers arrived. She later recounted her necessary efforts that day: “I remember having seen my father when he cured a dog of worms in the jungle with gasoline. I got some gasoline and poured it on myself. I counted the worms when they started to slip out. There were 35 on my arm. I remained there but I wanted to leave. I didn’t want to take the boat because I didn’t want to steal it.”
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 in the Tournavista District. With the help of a local pilot, she was airlifted to a hospital – and her waiting father – in Pucallpa.
Koepcke’s unlikely survival has been the subject of much speculation. It is known that she was seatbelted into her seat and thus somewhat shielded and cushioned, but it has also been theorized that the outer pair of seats – those on each side of Koepcke, which came attached to hers as part of a row of three – functioned like a parachute and slowed her fall. The impact may also have been lessened by thunderstorm updraft and the landing site’s thick foliage.
Koepcke’s experience, having been widely reported, is the subject of one feature length fictional film and one documentary. The first was the low-budget, heavily fictionalized I miracoli accadono ancora (1974) by Italian filmmaker Giuseppe Maria Scotese; it was released in English as Miracles Still Happen (1975) and is sometimes called The Story of Juliane Koepcke. Twenty-five years later, director Werner Herzog revisited the story in his film Wings of Hope (1998); Herzog, while location scouting for Aguirre, the Wrath of God, would have been on the flight but for a last-minute change of itinerary.
Juliane Koepcke serves as librarian at the Bavarian State Zoological Collection in Munich. Her autobiography, Als ich vom Himmel fiel (When I Fell From the Sky), was released on 10 March 2011 by Piper Verlag, for which she received the Corine Literature Prize in 2011.