In our modern society, high performing machines have made life astonishingly efficient. Take for instance the airplane, which makes traversing the globe seem like child’s play. For one 17-year-old however, an airplane is what led to the most horrifying experience of her life.
The story of Juliane Koepcke is as interesting as it is unnerving. To know just what happened, we need to time travel back to Christmas Eve, 1971, when Juliane and her mother were flying over the Peruvian rainforest in an attempt to get back to their native country Germany.
Born in Peru to German parents, Juliane had a very non-traditional childhood. With a zoologist for a father and a mother who studied birds, She was mostly home-schooled and spent most of her time in the Peruvian jungles.
On Christmas Eve 1971, Juliane and her mother were anxious to join Juliane’s father in Germany for the holidays. After boarding the plane which was already several hours delayed, they encountered fierce turbulence due to lightning, and stormy weather.
Everyone on board seemed scared and nervous, then the unthinkable happened. After all these years, Julianne still vividly recalls that moment with surprising clarity:
“After about 10 minutes, I saw a very bright light on the outer engine on the left. My mother said very calmly: ‘That is the end, it’s all over.’ Those were the last words I ever heard from her … Suddenly the noise stopped and I was outside the plane. I was in freefall, strapped to my seat bench and hanging head over heels. The whispering of the wind was the only noise I could hear.”
The plane had broken into pieces after been hit by lightening and in this surreal moment of quiet confusion, Juliane found herself crashing towards the canopy of the rainforest almost 2-miles below her!
What inevitably proved to be a deadly crash for all 92 people on board, ended with a miracle for Juliane. She remembers losing consciousness upon impact with the forest canopy, and waking up the next day with a broken collarbone, ruptured knee ligament, and other deep cuts. Beyond all odds, Juliane was alive and could walk.
Still, survival in a rainforest is no easy feat, especially not with such injuries and no supplies. But if there was anyone who could have made it, it was Juliane:
“Before the crash, I had spent a year and a half with my parents on their research station only 30 miles away. 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.”
In the days that followed, she used these skills to survive despite of losing her glasses, her shoe, and wearing a short sleeveless dress which offered no protection against bugs, critters, and the extreme weather of the rainforest.
10 days later, after battling starvation, snakes, vultures, maggots in her wounds, and worse of all, other dead bodies from the plane crash, Juliane finally came upon a small boat in the creek where she was walking. Nearby was a hut with people who eventually fed her, took care of her, and took her back to civilization.
Juliane was reunited with her father, but still had no definitive news about her mother. A few days later, when the body was recovered, Juliane learned that her mother too had survived the crash, but couldn’t survive the injuries that followed and had perished in the rainforest.
It’s been almost 50 years since that dreaded Christmas Eve. For Juliane, surviving the crash and being able to tell the tale still feels like a miracle. Strangely enough, the nightmare didn’t deter Juliane, who is now 62-years-old, from getting a doctorate in biology and later even returning to Peru to study bats.
Juliane’s story has since inspired many documentaries and movies. She will forever remain the girl who survived the plane crash and lived to tell us all about it.