Juliane Koepcke is a German-Peruvian biologist, who was the lone survivor among the 92 passengers and crew of the ill-fated LANSA Flight 508 that crashed in the Peruvian rainforest on 24 December 1971. When Juliane Koepcke set off on the LANSA flight with her mother to meet her dad for Christmas celebrations in 1971, little did she knew that it would be the turning point of her life. Not only would it be the last journey with her mother but the most torturous one that would leave her with excruciating physical pain and emotional and mental agony. Popularly known as the ‘Girl Who Fell From the Sky’, Juliane not just survived a plane crash but has lived long to tell the tale of her miraculous escapade. All alone in a white mini dress, one sandal and a pack of sweets, she not just braved the extreme weather but also various poisonous creatures including bats, beetles, jaguars, scorpions, snakes, piranhas and alligators. Luckily, what stood in her favour was her experience of living in jungle while she was a kid. Her parents had taught her everything about the ‘green’ world. It was this knowledge and experience that saw her through. Koepcke’s story is truly one of bravery, courage, heroism, grit and determination. It was her strength of character and will power to reunite with her dad that kept her going.
The Meteoric Rise to Stardom
Not everyone who gets famous get it the conventional way; there are some for whom fame and recognition comes in the most tragic of situations. And one amongst them is Juliane Koepcke. Juliane, together with her mother Maria Koepcke, was off to Pucallpa to meet her dad on 1971’s Christmas Eve. When the plane was mid-air, the weather outside suddenly turned worse. They spearheaded into a huge thunderstorm that was followed by a lightning jolt. Suddenly everything turned pitch black and moments later, the plane went into a nose dive. Within a fraction of seconds, Juliane realized that she was out of the plane, still strapped to her seat and headed for a freefall upside down in the Peruvian rainforest, the canopy of which served as a green carpet for her.
Immediately after the fall, Koepcke lost consciousness. The next day when she woke up, she realized the impact of the situation. She had survived a plane crash with just a broken collarbone, a gash to her right arm and swollen right eye. Taking grip of her body, she frantically searched for her mother but all in vain. It was while looking for her mother or any other survivor that Juliane Koepcke chanced upon a stream. Moving downstream in search of civilization, she relentlessly trekked for nine days in the little stream of the thick rainforest, braving insect bites, hunger pangs and drained body. Finally, on the tenth day, Juliane suddenly found a boat fastened to a shelter at the side of the stream. The sight left her exhilarated as it was her only hope to get united with the civilization soon again. It was hours later that the men arrived at the boat and were shocked to see her. They seemed like God-send angels for Koepcke as they treated her wound and gave her food. Next, they took her through a seven hour long canoe ride down the river to a lumber station where she was airlifted to her father in Pucallpa.
Julian Koepcke’s miraculous survival brought her immense fame. Little did she knew that while the time she was braving the adversities to reunite herself with civilization was the time she was immortalizing her existence, for no one amongst the 92 on-board passenger and crew of the LANSA flight survived except her. Second degree burns, torn ligament, broken collarbone, swollen eye, severely bruised arm and exasperatedly exhausted body – nothing came in between her sheer determination to survivr. She moved to Germany where she fully recovered from her injuries, internally, extermally and psychologically.
On March 10, 2011, Juliane Koepcke came out with her autobiography, ‘Als ich vom Himmel fiel’ (When I Fell From the Sky) that gave a dire account of her miraculous survival, her 10-day tryst to come out of the thick rainforest and the challenges she faced single-handedly at the rainforest jungle. She won Corine Literature Prize, in 2011, for her book. Susan Penhaligon made a film ,‘Miracles Still Happen’, on Juliane experience.
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Juliane Koepcke was born on October 10, 1954 in Lima, Peru into a German-Peruvian family. Her father, Hand Wilhelm Koepcke, was a biologist who was working in the city of Pucallpa while her mother, Maria Koepcke, was an ornithologist. Juliane Koepcke attended a German Peruvian High School.
She graduated from the University of Kiel, in zoology, in 1980. She received a doctorate from Ludwig-Maximilian University and returned to Peru to conduct research in mammalogy, specializing in bats. She published her thesis, Ecological study of a Bat Colony in the Tropical Rainforest of Peru in 1987. Currently, she serves as librarian at the Bavarian State Zoological Collection in Munich. She married Erich Diller, in 1989. He is an expert on parasitic wasps.