Granted, a seven hour wait in a bustling pre-Christmas airport for a trip that itself usually only takes an hour in the air might have been frustrating to some of them.
But for 17-year-old Juliane Koepcke and her ornithologist mother Maria that frustration gave way to relief as they began boarding at 11am the morning of December 24, 1971, and they readied themselves for the journey home. There Juliane would be reunited with her father, zoologist Hans-Wilhem Koepcke, for the Christmas break on the family’s nature reserve.
Approximately 40 minutes after take-off Flight 508 encountered a pitch black sky hiding a massive thunderstorm, with constant cannon-like thunder quickly enveloping the plane and lightning illuminating worried faces peering out rain-pelted windows.
One of those faces belonged to Juliane who, loving the distraction of looking outside whenever she flew, had claimed window seat 19F next to her mother near the tail of the plane. As Flight 508 continued into the heart of the storm it began to shake violently.
The cabin became like a deadly version of an old-school Yahtzee barrel, with a dangerous mix of partially full drink glasses, Christmas presents, and luggage pelting frightened passengers.
It would be safe to say that at this point some of the cabin’s occupants were realizing theirs might be the same fate as LANSA Flight 502, which crashed and killed 99 people onboard and 2 more on the ground less than two years earlier.
As she looked out her window and across the plane’s right wing Juliane saw a brilliant wave of white light. What she didn’t know was she was witnessing a fuel tank being hit by lightning, and the resulting explosion ripped the wing completely off.
The plane nosedived. Over the screams of terrified passengers-the majority of whom would be dead within moments-and the piercing roar of the plane rocketing towards the jungle below Juliane heard the final words her mother would ever say to her. There was fear in Maria Koepcke’s voice.
“Now it’s all over.”, she said. Juliane was in the midst of a 3050 metre (10,000 foot) free-fall from the plane, still strapped into the bench seating that once also housed her mother and another passenger. With her stomach being painfully squeezed by her seatbelt and the air forcefully retched from her lungs she finally passed out.
The next time she opened her eyes she was surrounded by jungle. Her fall through the thick overhead canopy had left her with a severe concussion and a broken collarbone, a scrape on one arm and a deep gash on her leg.
Being nearsighted Juliane needed glasses, but they were gone and her eye was swollen due to burst capillaries-a result of the sudden decompression of the plane’s cabin. Her concussed state made it difficult but Juliane eventually managed to crawl out from under what was once her seat and begin exploring her surroundings. She wanted to find her mother.
What Juliane did not know is what was left of Flight 508 was now scattered over 5.8 square miles of the Amazon, and the largest rescue operation by air and land in Peruvian history was underway around her. However, unpassable jungle and dense overhead canopy made searchers’ efforts futile.
Despite her injuries and the fact she was wearing a minidress that was about as unsuitable an outfit for the jungle as one could imagine, Juliane attempted to look for her mother.
During this search all she found was a bag of boiled sweets, and with those as her only source of food she decided to try and find rescue instead. Heeding past advice of her zoologist father, Juliane began walking and swimming downstream along a small river hoping that it would lead to a larger tributary and an area that might have people around.
The 17-year-old kept following the stream, running out of her sweets on day 4 and battling through her injuries that now had maggots living in the open wounds. After ten days of struggle through heavy undergrowth, with vultures circling overhead attracted by the now-rotting corpses of her fellow passengers scattered in the area and exhaustion draining her feeble body by the minute, Juliane was discovered by three lumbermen after she stumbled upon their camp.
Initially, the men thought Juliane was a water spirit. Since Juliana couldn’t buy herself a break at this point there she was with her shredded minidress, covered in mud and filth, barefoot with broken bones and maggots falling off of her, having to explain to the men that she was in fact human and that because of a plane crash she was incredibly hungry and needing help with her wounds.
Finally convinced, the men fed her and tended to her injuries as best they could. They took her on the 7 hour journey by boat to a nearby village where an area pilot flew her to a missionary-run hospital in Pucallpa. The next day, after what most people would classify as an ordeal that is about as close to hell on earth as someone will ever experience Juliana Koepcke, the lone survivor of LANSA Flight 508, was finally reunited with her father.
Watch ‘Wings of Hope’, the Werner Herzog documentary
- Williams, S., 2012. Sole survivor: the woman who fell to earth
- Edwards, C., 2016. How one little girl survived falling from the sky
- MacDonald, K., Survival Stories: The Girl Who Fell from the Sky
- Tasch, B., 2015. Woman describes what it was like to be the only survivor of a flight obliterated by a thunderstorm
- Littlewood, T., 2010. The Woman Who Fell to Earth
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