Today I found out that a 17 year old girl survived a 2 mile fall from a plane without a parachute, then trekked alone 10 days through the Peruvian rainforest.
On Christmas Eve, 1971, just a few hours after attending her high school graduation, 17 year old Juliane Koepcke and her mother, Maria, got on a flight from Lima, Peru to Pucallpa. The two were headed out to join Juliane’s father, Hans-Wilhelm, a famous German zoologist who was working at a remote research station in the rainforest.
Approximately 30 minutes into the flight, the plane entered very thick, black clouds. “The clouds became darker and darker and the flight became more turbulent. Then we were in the midst of pitch-black clouds and a proper storm with thunder and lightning,” said Koepcke. “It was pitch-black all around us and there was constant lightning. Then I saw a glistening light on the right wing… The motor was hit by lightning. “
While planes get struck by lightning all the time with no real problems ensuing, this time there was a big problem. Directly after the wing was struck, the aircraft was ripped apart, largely thanks to the fact that the Electra aircraft they were on wasn’t built for flying in heavy turbulence to begin with, due to its very rigid wings. Contrary to what is often reported, Koepcke states the wing “definitely didn’t explode.” Rather, the plane was simply ripped apart in the air after the wing fell off.
The last words Koepcke ever heard from her mother were when the lightning struck the wing, “it’s all over”… LIES!!! Well, at least for her daughter (and technically not the immediate end for her mother either, as you’ll soon see). Still strapped to her seat, Juliane Koepcke was ejected from the aircraft and fell approximately 2 miles into the dense Peruvian rainforest.
I heard the incredibly loud motor and people screaming and then the plane fell extremely steeply. And then it was calm—incredibly calm compared with the noise before that. 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 only way later, the next day.
Koepcke became the sole survivor of Lansa flight 508, all 91 other passengers and crew died. It isn’t known what exact factors played into Juliane’s surviving the fall. Some have speculated that her fall was slowed by the row of seats she was strapped to rotating like a helicopter, and then helped cushion her landing thanks to striking the dense forest on her way down. The actual cushion of her seat itself also likely played a small role.
Whatever the case, over the next 19 hours or so, Koepcke lapsed in and out of consciousness and at some point unknown to her, she managed to unstrap herself from her seat and crawl under it, she thinks as a response to rain. Finally, at 9am, she became lucid and in somewhat of a daze took stock of her situation. She was lying on the ground, dressed in only a sleeveless mini-dress and was missing one of her sandals and glasses. While she didn’t realize all her injuries at the time, she had survived the fall with a broken collar bone; a torn ACL; one of her eyes swollen shut; her capillaries in her eyes had popped (due to rapid decompression from the plane); a strained vertebrae in her neck; a partially fractured shin; and several deep cuts on her arms and legs.
It took her half the day just to be able to stand without getting too dizzy, but eventually she managed it and at first set out to find her mother, searching for a full day before giving up. During her search for her mother, though, she did find a bag of candy, which was her only food she had during her journey, and more importantly, a stream. Her father had once given her the very good advice that if she were ever lost in the rainforest and came across a stream or river, she should follow it downstream; because people tend to live on or near water, following a river long enough, should get you to civilization eventually.
She then set out. She knew from experience that snakes particularly liked to lay camouflaged under dry leaves, so when she wasn’t walking in the water, she used her one shoe, thrown before her, to test the ground for snakes and the like (she couldn’t see very well due to missing her glasses). Luckily, she never encountered any, that she saw at least, and she walked as much as possible in the river as it was an easier way to go, rather than through the dense foliage, though came with hazards of its own.
Within a couple days, she started hearing King vultures around her, the sound of which she recognized from living at her parent’s research station a year and a half before, only about 30 miles from where the plane crashed. Because King vultures usually only land when there is carrion around, she figured there must be dead bodies about that they were feeding on, but at first didn’t encounter any. On the fourth day, she finally spotted some; three other passengers still strapped to their seats and rammed several feet, headfirst into the ground.
I couldn’t really see that much, only people’s feet pointing up. I poked their feet with a stick. I couldn’t touch the dead bodies. I couldn’t smell anything and they hadn’t been eaten yet or started to decay. I mean, sure, decay must have started, but I couldn’t notice it. I could tell it was a woman because she had polished toenails and the others must have been two men, judging by their pants and shoes. I moved on after a while, but in the first moment after finding them, it was like I was paralyzed.
During her trek, several of her wounds became infected and a large cut on her right arm was infested with maggots. This is something she’d seen happen to her dog before, with near disastrous results for the dog. Try as she might, though, she couldn’t manage to get the maggots out as they were too deep in the wound. “I had this ring that was open on one side that you could squeeze together, and I tried with that. It didn’t work because the hole was so deep. So I tried with a stick, but that didn’t work either.”
On the tenth day she came across a boat, which in her delirious state at this point, she thought was a mirage until she finally came up to it and touched it. Next to the boat was a path, which she crawled up (at this point being extremely weak, making walking up the path somewhat difficult). At the end of the path was a small hut that was being used by lumbermen. Empty at the time, she found an outboard motor and some diesel fuel in a barrel.
She used a tube to suck out some of the fuel from the barrel and put that on her wound that was maggot infested, something her father had done to her dog, though with kerosene. Albeit extremely painful, this worked and most of the maggots, while initially trying to burrow deeper into her arm, eventually came to the surface and she was able pick them out.
She then tried to sleep in the hut, but found the ground to be much too hard, so she went back down to the river side and laid in the sand. The next day, she woke up and, hearing frogs all around her, tried to catch some to eat. Luckily for her she was unable to as they were poisonous dart frogs. At this point, she was debating whether to take the boat or not, something she didn’t want to do as it was stealing, but ultimately decided to spend the night at the hut.
She ended up not having to do so alone, though, because she soon heard voices, “like hearing angels’ voices”. Three people came out of the forest and spotted her. At first they thought she was a “Yemanjá”, a type of blond, pale skinned water spirit. “When they saw me, they were pretty freaked out.” However, she explained what had happened and how she got there, and they had heard of the plane crash, so accepted her tale. They then fed her and cared for her wounds as best they could and took her downstream on about a seven hour boat ride to a lumber station/village. (who says the deforestation of the rainforest is all bad? That’s one life that would have ended had there been no lumbermen about)
Once there, a local pilot knew of some missionaries nearby running a hospital in Pucuallpa. The pilot took her on what must have been a freaky, for Juliane, 15 minute flight to the hospital and the day after her rescue, she was reunited with her father. She then helped the search parties locate the crash site. On January 12th, they finally discovered her mother’s body. Like Juliane, her mother apparently survived the fall. However, her injuries prevented her from moving and she ended up dying several days later.
Now known as Juliane Diller, she has a PhD in Zoology and is a librarian at the Bacarian State Zoological Collection in Munich. Her autobiography “When I Fell From The Sky” (“Als ich vom Himmel fiel”) was released on March 10, 2011 and she received the Corine Literature Prize for her publication in 2011.
- According to the Guardian newspaper, there have been well over 20 documented cases of single survivors of civilian air crashes. The military also has many documented cases of similar events. According to David Learmount, an air safety expert, young, fit male passengers who sit in rear seats (note: Juliane and her mother were sitting in the second to last row of seats) and are frequent travelers are statistically more likely to survive an accident. When asked about why being a frequent traveler helps, Learmount states, it is likely because they “know where the exits are”.
- The average number of deaths per year for commercial air carriers is just 138. That means you have a 1 in 2 million chance of being killed if you chose to fly, or 1 in 11 million for the average American.
- The chance of being killed in a car crash is 1 in 7,700. The chance of being killed in a motorcycle accident is 1 in 91,500. If you think that these numbers make it sound like motorcycles are a safer way to travel, you have to consider that more people are likely travel in a car versus a motorcycle. To illustrate, the number of deaths per 100 million vehicle miles is 1.3 for a car, and 31.3 for a motorcycle. Wear your helmets kids!
- You are statistically more likely to die in a railroad accident than a bicycle accident. On average, 931 people die each year in railroad accidents and 695 die in bicycle accidents. The odds are 1 in 306,000 for railroads and 1 in 410,000 for bicycles.
- The two riskiest portions of a flight are during takeoff and landing; 75% of all crashes occur during these two phases of the flight. This is mainly due to the fact that takeoff demands the most from an airplane and landing demands the most from the cockpit crew. Save your prayers for just before these points during your travel.
- If these numbers are beginning to scare you, don’t worry. Over the past 30 years, there has been a 10 fold increase in the number of miles flown before a fatal accident. Also, consider that from 1983 to 2000 there were just 568 commercial plane crashes in the world. 53,487 people were involved in those crashes and 51,207 survived to tell the tale.
- Professor Ed Galea, of the University of Greenwich, is a world expert in aviation safety. His tips for helping you survive a plane crash are as follows:
- Do not push the button on your safety belt to try and undo it. You have to pull it. Most people in a panic will tend to push the belts button as if they were traveling in a car.
- Adopt the brace position (head in your lap). This will prevent you from flying forward and striking the seat in front of you.
- Count the seat rows between you and the exit when you get on a plane. Most crashes end up with a fire and resulting smoke. The smoke may make it difficult or impossible to see and should you take a deep breath, may kill you. By feeling, and counting the seat-backs you will know which row is the exit and be able to get there quickly.
- Make a plan prior to take-off, every time you fly. This should include: where the flight attendants are that can help you escape, the number of rows and locations of all the exits nearest you, and have a plan of how to get to each one.
- Do not inflate your life jacket inside the aircraft. This will increase your body size and make it more difficult to escape. (Along these lines….don’t be fat! Being fat can kill you in all sorts of non-aviation related ways).
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