Like most families, Juliane Koepcke and her mother, Maria Kopcke, spent their Christmas Eve traveling.
So on Christmas Eve, 1971, Juliane and her mother boarded LANSA Flight 50. a plane that could carry up to 99 people.
Their desired destination: Panguana, a research facility near Pucallpa, Peru. Juliane had spent 3 years studying the environment alongside her parents. With the anticipation of the holidays looming in the horizon, Juliane braced for what should have been a rudimentary hour flight.
Fifteen minutes before the projected landing, mother nature decided she had other plans. A thick blanket of black clouds encased the plane, reducing all visibility to zero.
Then, bam! With a swiftness, a lightning bolt not only illuminated the sky, but it sent the aircraft into a nosedive. Juliane remembered the strike, the sounds and weight of every passenger’s fear, and the calmness of her mother uttering “now it’s all over.” It was pure chaos, until it was nothing. Juliane said she can still recall the silence that followed the crash as she woke on the muddy ground of the Amazon rainforest, alone.
2 Mile High Club
Juliane opened her eyes to find no flight attendants offering beverages, no pilot announcing their arrival, not a single other person. She immediately assessed her injuries. The confusion that she felt was a dead giveaway to a concussion. Additionally, her collar bone was broken from the impact, and she had large wounds traversing both her calf and shoulder. It would come to light following the crash that Juliane fell approximately 2 miles out of the sky onto the cold ground beneath her.
Juliane wrote: “I lay there, almost like an embryo for the rest of the day and a whole night, until the next morning.” After the sun had risen, Juliane’s sedimentary attitude was replaced by a burning desire to find her mother. So, with lollipops from fallen luggage in hand she began her voyage through the notoriously dangerous jungle.
From Juliane Koepcke to Tarzan
It was almost as if Juliane’s parents had spent their lives preparing the 17-year-old for this moment. Her mother Maria was a scientist who specialized in research of tropical birds. Her father, Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke, was a renowned zoologist. Between the two, they had provided Juliane a great advantage to surviving such a brutal environment. She was able to hear native bird calls and sounds of wildlife that indicated she was in the general region of home.
Juliane made her way across both bodies of water and intense self-made trails until she noticed a species of vulture her mother had taught her about. The birds were eerily circling a part of the forest. She tried to keep her optimism as she grew closer and closer to their marked location, with the daunting knowledge that these birds specialized in detecting death.
The image that followed is permanently etched into her memory. She saw three passengers, still strapped to their seats, that had not been so lucky in the crash. These casualties would be the first of many to Juliane’s knowledge. Even with the gruesome discovery, Juliane would not stop her fight for rescue. She navigated the Amazon for 10 days before not only her body began to give up, but her mind as well.
The Sweet Sweet Sound of a Peruvian Fisherman
On the tenth day, Juliane finally received some karmic return. Juliane found a small hut just past a riverbed she had been following. The hut must have looked like a top tier, 5-star hotel in that moment. She wandered inside and found a bottle of petrol. She quickly poured it into her large shoulder laceration and spent her next moments cleaning maggots out of her wound. Absolutely exhausted and feeling safer than she had in days, she decided to spend the night there.
Juliane was woken up the next day by a sound that startled her, the sound of people. She managed to make her way outside of the refuge and to the Peruvian fisherman nearby. Utilizing her Spanish, she was able to communicate that she was a survivor of the LANSA flight 508 plane crash. Juliane would eventually learn that she would be the only one to mutter those words, a lone survivor. Finally, days after Christmas, the best gift Juliane could receive was her in her grasp… salvation.