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When She Fell From The Sky…

What to do in a nightmarish situation that turns into a cliffhanger of sorts… would that person make an attempt to survive, or just give up? A teenage German girl from Peru had chosen the first option in 1971. Juliane Koepcke (b. October 10, 1954), also known by her married name Juliane Diller, managed to dodge the death miraculously, as she was the sole survivor of the LANSA Flight 508 plane crash. Evan after falling from a height of 3,000mt (or 9,842.52ft), she, still strapped to her seat, survived 11 days alone in the Amazon rainforest. She, by the way, had no time to get surprised, as she had to face another trouble after getting rid of the first one.

17-year-old Juliane

While staying alone in the Amazon rainforest, she, reportedly, did not dare to imagine that it would be possible for her to survive and return to the civilised world. Still, she made an attempt to survive, with a fractured collarbone, and injuries in her legs and limbs. Juliane was stuck in the mud in that condition for two consecutive days. After regaining consciousness, she took an entire day to understand what had happened to her.

Juliane with her parents

Juliane, along with her mother, was returning to Panguana (her hometown in Peru) from Lima on the eve of Christmas. While her father Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke was a biologist, her mother Maria Koepcke was an ornithologist. Their residence was basically a small laboratory. Her parents had built the house in a forest for the convenience of their research works. Juliane was in a hurry to return home on that fateful day. However, she had to face difficulties in the morning. It was an hour-long trip, but the flight was delayed by over seven hours.

Finally, the flight took off just before noon on December 24, 1971. Within 25 minutes, the LANSA Flight 508 started facing troubles because of poor weather conditions. On its way to Iquitos (Peru) with a scheduled stop at Pucallpa, the aircraft was flying at about 6,400mt (or 21,000ft) above mean sea level when it encountered an area of thunderstorms and severe turbulence. Some evidence showed the crew decided to continue the flight, despite the hazardous weather ahead, apparently because of pressure to meet the holiday schedule. A flash of lightning could be seen on the left wing of the aircraft. Juliane’s mother reportedly told her daughter: “This is the end. Now it’s all over.” Then, the plane began to descend at a high speed. Juliane did not remember anything after that. All she could remember at the final moment was a loud noise of the engine, the pitch darkness and the screams all around. Later, the Peruvian investigators cited “intentional flight into hazardous weather conditions” as a cause of the crash. The deadliest lightning strike disaster in history killed 91 people, including six of its crew and 85 of its 86 passengers. The sole survivor was 17-year-old Juliane, who while strapped to her seat fell 3,000mt into the Amazon rainforest, and survived the fall. Then, she was able to walk through the jungle for 11 days.

Juliane in the Amazon rainforest

When Juliane regained consciousness the next day, she found herself lying on a bed of leaves. As the injured girl did not have the strength to stand up, she spent the next 24 hours on leaves. Later, she shared her experience with readers in her 2011 publication ‘When I Fell From The Sky: The True Story of One Woman’s Miraculous Survival‘. “Wet and muddy, I lie there for the rest of the day and night. I will never forget the image I see when I open my eyes the next morning: The crowns of the giant trees above me are suffused with golden light, bathing everything in a green glow. I feel abandoned, helpless, and utterly alone,” wrote Juliane.

It was raining heavily in the month of December. Perhaps, Juliane did not feel the coldness; otherwise, wet clothes would have made her even more sick. Furthermore, she had no food. As she had grown up in the forest, her father taught her how to come out from the jungle. In her book, Juliane mentioned that her father had told her to look for the river when lost in the forest. “On December 29 or 30, the fifth or sixth day of my trek, I hear a buzzing, groaning sound that immediately turns my apathetic mood into euphoria. It’s the unmistakable call of a hoatzin, a subtropical bird that nests exclusively near open stretches of water – where people settle! At home in Panguana, I heard this call often. With new impetus, I walk faster, following the sound. Finally, I’m standing on the bank of a large river, but there’s not a soul in sight,” she wrote.

Juliane in Hospital

Juliane tried to find her mother first; however, she could not see the debris of the plane around her. After walking several miles, she noticed some Christmas gifts, boxes of cakes and sweets. Later, she came to know that she was the lone survivor of the crash. She walked along the bank of the river for about eight days to find a settlement. “I find a gravel bank that looks like a good place to sleep. I doze off for a few minutes. When I wake up, I see something that doesn’t belong here: a boat. I rub my eyes, look three times, and it’s still there. A boat!” she added. She also discovered a hut there.

Juliane Koepcke

As Juliane no longer had the strength to struggle to her feet, she decided to take rest at the hut one more day, and then keep moving again. Local fishermen rescued her from that hut. The girl told the fishermen in Spanish: “I’m a girl who was in the LANSA crash. My name is Juliane.” Later, she was airlifted to a city hospital, where she made a slow recovery. She received treatment in Germany, too. However, those 11 days’ experience changed her life. Like her parents, she studied biology at the University of Kiel and graduated in 1980. She received a Doctorate from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, and returned to Peru to conduct research works in mammalogy, specialising in bats. Juliane also set up a laboratory in the forest of Panguana. In 1989, she married Erich Diller, a German Entomologist who specialised in parasitic wasps.

Panguana research hut where Juliane spent most of her life until the accident

Based on the book penned by Juliane, Italian filmmaker Giuseppe Maria Scotese made a low-budget, heavily fictionalised movie ‘I miracoli accadono ancora’ in 1974, and it was released in English as ‘Miracles Still Happen’ later that year.

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