This Teen Fell 10,000ft In An Amazon Plane Crash. This Is The Story Of Her Miraculous Survival

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Thousands of feet above the thick canopy of the Amazon jungle, a passenger plane hits trouble in stormy skies. Then, after lightning strikes the wing, the craft’s fuselage disintegrates, sending 17-year-old Juliane Koepcke hurtling down towards the ground below. She’s still strapped into her seat as she goes into a tailspin. The teenager sees the Amazon coming up to greet her – before, perhaps gratefully, she loses all consciousness.

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Juliane was born on October 10, 1954, in Lima, the capital city of Peru. Her German parents, Maria and Hans-Wilhelm, were both zoologists employed by the Javier Prado Museum of Natural History. As a result, Juliane developed a passion for nature from a young age. Then, when she was just 14 years old, the family relocated into the depths of the Amazon rainforest.

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There, Maria and Hans-Wilhelm established a research station known as Panguana, where Juliane spent her days being homeschooled and exploring her jungle home. Then, in March 1970, she was sent back to Lima to complete her high school education. And by December of 1971, she was ready to graduate.

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According to Juliane, Maria – who had also been in Lima for work – was keen to fly back to Panguana in plenty of time for Christmas. However, Juliane was desperate to attend her school’s graduation ball on December 22. Like many teenagers, she got her way. And two days after she posed for photographs in her formal gown, Juliane and Maria finally boarded a plane home.

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At around 11:00 a.m. on Christmas Eve, Juliane and Maria settled into their seats on Lansa Flight 508, bound for Pucallpa in eastern Peru. But just 15 minutes before it was meant to touch down, the plane flew into a heavy storm. And for ten minutes, the cabin was a scene of panic as turbulence sent drinks and baggage flying across the aisles.

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As their fellow passengers began to cry and scream, Juliane and her mother held hands. But then, the teenager spotted a bright light outside the plane. A bolt of lightning had severed the craft’s right wing, sending it spiralling in a nose dive towards the ground. Next to her, Juliane reportedly heard her mother say, “It’s all over.”

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The next thing Juliane knew, she was falling through mid-air, still belted into her airplane seat. But as the ground grew closer and closer, she blacked out. For two miles, she tumbled helplessly through the air before crashing her way through the rainforest canopy and landing on the jungle floor.

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Image: Juliane Koepcke via Reader’s Digest

Miraculously, Juliane didn’t just survive her ordeal – apart from some cuts and a damaged collarbone, she escaped unharmed. However, the teenager was also alone in the jungle, dressed only in a minidress and with nothing in the way of equipment or food. And even though she cried out for help, she heard only silence in return.

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At the site of the crash, Juliane managed to get her hands on some boiled sweets – the only type of nourishment that she could find. With such meager supplies, the teenager knew that she had to leave the spot where she had landed and find help. Luckily, her time living in the rainforest had prepared her for what was to come.

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Apparently, Hans-Wilhelm had told his daughter that the jungle’s streams eventually led to larger stretches of water and civilization. So, Juliane located a creek and began to follow it through the rainforest. However, it was a perilous journey, fraught with dangers such as big cats and venomous snakes.

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Impressively, Juliane kept her head, using what she knew about the rainforest to minimize the risks during her journey. For example, the teen was aware that deadly piranhas were more likely to attack in the shallows – so she traveled in deeper water instead. Moreover, she knew that the streams were probably safe to drink from.

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At one point, Juliane heard the sound of a king vulture landing close by. The call terrified her, as she knew that it meant dead bodies were in the area. Sure enough, she soon stumbled upon the remains of three passengers still in their seats, their heads embedded in the jungle floor. For a moment, she feared that one could be her mother before she spotted the painted nails. The teen knew that Maria didn’t use nail varnish.

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On the fourth day, Juliane’s stash of sweets ran out. However, she had little choice but to continue, inching her way through the rainforest with her one remaining shoe. During the lighter hours, the 17-year-old was constantly plagued by bugs, while nighttime saw the temperatures drop and her body pelted with freezing rain.

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Nevertheless, Juliane persevered. And when she heard the cry of a bird that she recognized from her time at Panguana – ironically just 30 miles away – she knew it meant a bigger water source was nearby. Following the sound through the jungle, she eventually found herself at a river.

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After ten days, Juliane finally stumbled upon a beacon of hope. “I thought I was hallucinating when I saw a really large boat,” she told the BBC in 2012. “When I went to touch it and realized it was real, it was like an adrenaline shot.” Then, she saw a path leading off into the rainforest. Following it, the teen came to a hut housing some gas and a motor.

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By this point, a wound on Juliane’s arm had become infected, with maggots squirming around inside. Copying a treatment that she had seen her father give to their family dog, she applied gas to the cut. Eventually, the teen was able to remove some of the creatures before deciding to get some sleep inside the shack.

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Eventually, Juliane heard the sound of voices outside the hut. Although it did not happen very often, a group of loggers had decided to visit their camp. With that stroke of luck, her ordeal was over. After feeding the teenager and tending her wounds, they returned her to civilization where she was reunited with her desperate father.

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For days after the crash, Hans-Wilhelm continued to search for any sign of his missing wife. Eventually, Maria’s body was discovered in the jungle. Heartbreakingly, she too had survived the crash – although an injury had prevented her from seeking help. According to Juliane, her father was never the same after the tragedy. “His life was finished,” she told The Telegraph in 2012.

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Meanwhile, Juliane found herself at the center of a media storm. Overwhelmed by the situation, her father sent her to Germany to live with her aunt and grandmother. But as time went on, the ghosts of her past continued to haunt her. In fact, it wasn’t until 1998 that the crash survivor achieved some kind of closure. Indeed, that year, movie director Werner Herzog – who had tried to get a seat on the plane himself – took her back to the Amazon for the first time. There they filmed his documentary Wings of Hope.

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Today, Juliane has taken over from her parents at Panguana, having overseen its conversion into a nature reserve. And in 2011, she published a book about her experiences, entitled When I Fell from the Sky. “Sometimes I feel unlucky that I have to carry this heavy weight because it is a heavy weight for the psyche,” she explained. “But I am healthy and I can do work that I love, and this is only possible because I survived – so I am lucky too.”

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