She fell 10,000 feet from a disintegrating
airliner, and survived.
Christmas Eve, 1971. A Lockheed Electra
4-engine turboprop airliner departed Lima, Peru and was
north-east bound for the city or Pucallpa. Somewhere over the
remote, tropical rainforest it encountered severe thunderstorm
activity. The pilots pressed on, presumably under pressure to
complete the flight with 92 people on board, all with Christmas
Severe turbulence buffered the 12-year-old
airliner, which was not built to withstand the tremendous
stresses of such a storm. Lightning lit up the dark clouds, the
flashes reflected on the concerned faces of passengers.
Suddenly, a loud crack was heard as lightning struck the right
wing. It was quickly followed by a bright flash and fire as a
fuel tank lit up. The wing abruptly bent and snapped off under
the stress, sending the airliner into a spinning free-fall.
Despite the best efforts of the pilots, there was no possible
way to control the plane, and as the speed built up, it began to
Tumbling and spinning from the sky, at about
20,000 feet the left wing and tail section departed the
fuselage. A giant hole was ripped open and everything inside
was being tossed out into the storm, including passengers, many
still strapped into seats torn from the floor.
In the window seat in the second row from the
back, sat a 17 year old high school student by the name of
Juliane Koepcke. Her mother was beside her, and another
passenger, a man, occupied the aisle seat. Juliane couldn’t
know it yet, but she was about to become a miracle statistic.
Although she has no recollection of just how it happened,
somehow the three connected seats were thrown out of the
fuselage with a force brutal enough to tear the bodies of her
mother and the other passenger from their seatbelts, leaving
Juliane still strapped in as she tumbled and spun through
space. Aircraft parts, jagged metal, the engines, props,
landing gear, other bodies and flaming wreckage plummeted toward
the jungle almost two miles below, but somehow she was spared
Juliane has recollections of seeing the
ground spinning and feeling the G-forces as she fell. A
free-falling skydiver will reach a terminal velocity of about
122 m.p.h. It’s safe to assume that the airliner seats provided
some drag, slowing the young woman to a speed somewhere near
perhaps 110 to 115 m.p.h. Regardless, it was still at a rate
from which no one should survive.
As aircraft wreckage and bodies began to hit
the canopy of the thick rainforest, the larger pieces slowed,
tending to hang up in the heavy branches of the giant trees.
The three-seat platform that Juliane was a part of, snapped off
pieces of trees, bent others, and was generally cushioned on
descent through the last couple of hundred feet before hitting
the ground hard enough to dig in several inches. Juliane never
woke up until about 18 hours later.
Juliane’s parents were famous German
zoologists, who ran a wildlife research station in Northeastern
Peru. It was there she was heading to spend Christmas with her
family. Instead, she now found herself alone, injured, and lost
in the tropical rainforest, many miles from help. Sometime
early Christmas morning, Juliane regained consciousness.
Despite a severe concussion, she was able to piece together at
least some of the events that led to her demise, and began to
understand her situation. The ordeal was far from over though,
and her survival would continue to be in doubt for another ten
to twelve days.
Searchers were unable to locate the crash
site because wreckage was scattered over the jungle, most of the
pieces now resting well below the heavy canopy. Somewhere,
there were ninety one bodies, and one person still alive.
Nobody knew that except Juliane herself. Over the next twelve
hours the situation became more and more clear to her, and she
adopted a plan to save herself. She’d been unable to locate
anyone from the crash, at least anyone still alive, so knew
she’d need to survive on her own. With fairly minor injuries (a
broken collarbone, deep cuts on one leg and an arm, as well as
the concussion and trouble with one eye) she attempted to walk
from the scene. Her father had taught her survival skills in
the jungle during times she had spent with him at the research
station, so she knew that she needed to follow streams as they
ran downhill into rivers. It would be on waterways she could
expect to find people.
A superhuman effort was undoubtedly required
over the next eleven days, as she walked, stumbled, thrashed and
swam, following a waterway. She avoided crocodiles, piranhas,
poisonous snakes and somehow fought off infections in the wounds
from the fall. Finally, she came upon a camp used by loggers.
The men treated her injuries as best they could, then took her
down the river in their boat to a small town, where a missionary
pilot flew her to a hospital.
The young woman, 17 at the time, became known
as the miracle girl that fell from the sky. The ecstasy of her
survival was shared by her father. However, they both were to
mourn the loss of her mother.
Peruvian investigators determined the following sequence of
events leading to the accident:
forty minutes after take-off, the aircraft entered a zone of
strong turbulence and lightning. After flying for twenty minutes
in this weather at FL210 lightning struck the aircraft, causing
fire on the right wing which separated, along with part of the
left wing. The aircraft crashed in flames into mountainous
Juliane, then and
Juliane K÷pcke returned to Germany, where she
fully recovered from her injuries and continued her studies,
eventually earning a PhD degree in zoology like her parents, in
1987. Now known as Dr. Juliane Diller, she specializes in
mammalogy, studying bats in Munich, Germany, and working at the
Munich Zoological Center, where she is a librarian.