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This story of survival is something you would never imagine in your worst dreams. You’re on a flight to Peru when your plane is struck by lightning and starts to break up in mid-air, your seat with you strapped to it flies out of the broken plane 10,000ft (3.2km) in the air and you are thrown into a thick forest canopy smashing against limb after limb of Peruvian jungle trees before you hit the ground.
A broken collarbone, a deep wound in your arm and your right eye is swollen shut, you’re stuck in the middle of a Peruvian jungle with no help, no-one else alive and a 10-day walk through a jungle where anything can kill you.
This is what Juliane Koepcke went through as a 17-year-old girl travelling to see her father on December 24, 1971. She lived and here’s how she did it.
Juliane Koepcke’s plane was a Lockheed Electra turboprop which was on route as a LANSA Airlines flight from Lima to Pucallpa in the Amazonian rainforest. She was travelling with her mother at the time, who did not survive the crash as well as 90 other passengers. In fact, she was the sole survivor of that freak event.
Her parents were both famous zoologists and Koepcke and her mother were flying to see her father for Christmas who was only a short flight of about an hour away.
That hour turned into a 10-day nightmare when 25 minutes into the flight the plane flew into a severe thunderstorm. According to a CNN interview with Koepcke, the plane was shaky at first from the turbulence, and then suddenly a lightning bolt had struck one of the plane’s fuel tanks and had torn the right wing off. The plane started to nosedive when Koepcke’s mum said to her “this is it” – those were the last words she ever heard from her mother.
According to air crash investigators, the plane had started to tear apart in mid-air and Koepcke’s row of seats, with her in it, was thrust out of the plane where a break had occurred and spun wildly plummeting towards the ground.
Koepcke’s recollection of the event was that there was a sudden “amazing silence” as she was thrown out and flying through the air. All she remembers in between the unconsciousness of the speeds was seeing glimpses of the forest grow nearer and nearer as she spiralled toward the ground 10,000 feet below her.
Further insight into the crash has shown that her fall was likely broken up by the jungle’s thick canopy of trees and vines which would have slightly slowed her acceleration towards the ground. For Koepcke, at this point, she was well and truly unconscious and did not come to until the next morning.
Juliane Koepcke was the only survivor of that flight and her survival from the crash was a part of luck, physics and the right conditions of fall, trees and vines to break her landing, and of course, the fact that she was still trapped into a row of seats.
Her own skills at survival would see her survive the next 10 days, which is where the survival mode comes into effect. For a 17-year-old girl, this alone would be enough to send someone into a disabling panic and shock, the fact that they have just survived a plane crash and that they have just lost a parent.
For Koepcke and others that have been in these shocking survival scenarios, there is a self-mortality that kicks in and runs on auto-drive. Adrenaline mixes with shock to create a primal instinct of survival where a subconscious caretaker steps in to manage things where a normal person, under those circumstances, would generally be crippled.
The first step to Koepcke’s self-awareness was her mental state and her injuries. She was cloudy upon waking up from what was, according to her, most likely a severe concussion. Her first thoughts were her mental state. She had just realised she had experienced a plane crash and that she was all alone in what was a huge, overwhelming and dangerous environment.
This is generally a point where a lot of people would feel helpless and totally abandoned. She did too.
The next realisation the compounding affect her injuries had on her. In her video Wings of Hope (below), she mentions that she could barely see as her left eye was “completely shut” and she could only see through a narrow slit in her other eye. The first time she tried to stand up she blacked out again from her concussion. Her self-diagnosis was:
For her gear, she had absolutely nothing. She had lost her glasses, one shoe, and was wearing a mini skirt. Had she had a lighter and a knife, her life would have been much easier by building a shelter and sending out a smoke signal. She could have cut the core of the palm which is edible for sugar, and cut open the thick vine tusks around her for fresh clean drinking water.
But for Juliane Koepcke, life was very brutal to this young girl at that point and she had nothing.
There is a very clear message about survival from this story, which is that knowledge, coupled with experience and familiarity in a certain environment can increase your survival in the wilderness exponentially. Juliane Koepcke’s story of survival is directly attributable to this, as she spent a lot of time in the rainforest where she had crashed and her parents had raised her with an education of how the jungle rainforest worked, and how its ecosystem operated.
Koepcke said during a visit back to the area that the “dangers of the jungle are basically misjudged”. She said this while standing in waters of the Rio Yuya Pichis river. While there are stingrays, crocodiles and piranhas in those waters, she said that she was safe as piranhas are harmless in moving water, crocodiles avoid you most of the time and stingrays move when prodded with a stick.
In this wilderness, she knew exactly how it worked and what the rules of nature were.
In her case, her method of finding human habitation was to locate a creek and then follow it downstream until it fed into larger river. From there she would be able to locate one of the communities that rived and fished along the riverside.
She said when she much younger, she remembered a story of an American expedition team that went to the Sierra Mountains. In that expedition, the leader accidentally shot himself in the leg but he was quite tall and heavy so the crew could not carry him to get help, instead the team sent a young member to get help. The young man inevitably got lost but made his way by tracking the stream to find Koepcke’s parent’s research station. It was this knowledge that Koepcke used as a way to navigate her way through the big green rainforest.
It wasn’t until about four days later that Koepcke found any bodies from the crash. She had come across a row of passengers that were also still in their seats but had landed head first into the ground.
She thought one of them was her mother, but the toes of the plane crash victim were painted, something her mother never did.
The only other thing she was able to find from a large chunk of plane crash debris was a bag of candy and a very large Christmas cake which had been completely soaked with muddy water. She tried to eat some of the cake but it was too mud-ridden to have any decent taste. She left the cake behind. She recalls in an interview that leaving the cake behind was a “stupid idea, but at that moment I didn’t realise I would be in the jungle for so long”.
From the crash site where Juliane Koepcke was able to find a bag of candy, she also located a very small dripping of a spring where a small pool of water was running over onto a stone. Being a regular in these environments she didn’t think anything of it at first, but after realising the sound was there, she knew she would follow the direction of the stream’s travel to escape her nightmare scenario.
She said that if it were anyone else in that situation, they most likely would have stayed at the site of the crash and waited for rescue, but for her, it was logic that a small body of water would run into a larger one, and much like the young American expedition scout that was sent back for help, she too would be able to find help this way.
While many survivalists focus on simple skills to remember, it is always the case that shock, panic and adrenaline take over and run the mind on the most possible outcome of survival. For Koepcke, it wasn’t worrying about leeches, snakes or her wounds, it was the sole concentration on the sheer prospect of getting out and finding help, and her one way to do that was to follow the water.
After some distance, in still waterways, Koepcke heard a call from a certain type of bird that always kept to trees backing large rivers, she knew that this would be a sign of a large body of water, so she headed for it. Upon reaching the river, she saw that there were large growths of bamboo which only grew along an uninhabitable part of the river which meant she had to keep tracking the water to another section of river.
During her walk through the river, she noticed crocodiles would slide from the muddy river banks and into the water whenever they would see her. Most would think this is to attack, but she kept to the water as she knew they were only startled and were trying to hide. She would also use a stick to poke the muddy water in front of her to move any poisonous stingrays.
During the entire ordeal, Juliane Koepcke had no food to eat. She said she was not hungry at all, partially to do with her shock and partially to do with her wounds and getting help were her prioritised concerns.
The wound on her arm had grown to a point where flies had laid eggs on it, maggots had hatched and had eaten into her flesh. She said she got frightened after looking at a hole in her arm with the large maggots in it that she might get blood poisoning. Despite those injuries, she was able to keep herself well nourished with water by locating fresh streams and drinking from those.
On the 10th day, with her skin covered in leaves to protect her from mosquitoes and in a hallucinating state, Juliane Koepcke came across a boat and shelter. She slept under it for the night and was found the next morning by three men that regularly worked in the area.
To clean her wounds, the men used gasoline as a disinfectant and to flush away the maggots. They took her to a nearby village where she was flown out and taken to a missionary hospital where she stayed for months.
While I have only covered Juliane Koepcke’s story in 2000 words, her book When I Fell From The Sky provides an in-depth view into how to survive in a jungle environment as well as a great insight into psychology survival.
You can also see how another teen more recently survived 11 nights in Wilderness Survival: 11 Nights Lost And Alone In The Woods