This is a translated version of an article published on June 13, 2023. Juliane pulls herself up the riverside, her shoulders burnt and her brain confused by hunger. It takes her hours to walk a few meters. Her back wound hurts, and maggots have chewed a deep hole in her skin. Above all, she is relieved. She finally finds what she was looking for after ten days of laboring alone through Peru’s rainforest: a sign of human civilisation. A tambo, which is a simple shelter composed of poles and palm leaves. Her sole hope for survival.
She is waiting in the tambo. He sleeps, hopes, and waits. She will occasionally try to grab a frog to satiate her hunger. It was all in vain. Night falls, and day begins. What if no one shows up? But she is too frail to continue. Finally, on the eleventh day, three men emerge from the forest, shocked to see her. “I am a girl who crashed with Lansa,” she explains in Spanish. “My name is Juliane.”
The story of Juliane Koepcke, who was 17 at the time and is now Juliane Diller, went viral. The German-Peruvian escaped a plane disaster in the eastern portion of Peru at the end of 1971, which killed 91 persons. She then fought her way for ten days through the jungle before being rescued. Five decades later, four siblings ages 13, nine, four, and one were the only survivors of a small plane crash and battled through the Colombian wilderness for 40 days before rescue.
The children, who were part of an indigenous community, were saved by their older sister. “We owe it to her and her leadership that the other three survived, thanks to her care and knowledge of the jungle,” Colombian President Gustavo Petro stated during a hospital visit. Juliane also profited from her understanding of jungle laws: she had grown up on a research station in the Peruvian rainforest with her parents, both zoologists, and was thus familiar with the environment. Juliane wrote a book four decades after the plane disaster called “When I Fell from the Sky:
How the Jungle Saved My Life,” which was translated into twelve languages. It’s Christmas Eve, December 24, 1971. Juliane and her mother make their way through the Lima Airport congestion. The departure hall is in shambles. Some flights had been canceled the day before, and hundreds of people are now attempting to catch a flight home for Christmas. Among the passengers on the plane is director Werner Herzog, who met Juliane many years later to make the documentary “Wings of Hope” about her experience. He intends to fly to Pucallpa with his crew for filming, the same destination as Juliane and her mother.
They intend to travel to their home, the Panguana Research Station, from there. They were only in Peruvian capital for Juliane to obtain her graduation certificate from the school she attended there the day before. Unlike Herzog, the mother and daughter are able to acquire seats on the Peruvian carrier Lansa. It’s a Lockhead L-188A Electra turboprop, and Juliane says in her book, “when we finally see the plane, it appears magnificent to us.” It appears to be fresh new in my opinion.” It was later revealed that this was not the case.
The two ladies take their places. Number 19 in the second-to-last row. Juliane is on seat F by the window, with her mother in the middle of the three-seat row. The flight from Lima to Pucallpa is scheduled to last around one hour. The atmosphere was upbeat, and everyone was looking forward to Christmas. Sandwiches are served by the flight attendants. The bliss fades after a half-hour flight. Panic begins to spread. The plane is flying directly into a thunderstorm. Juliane subsequently recounts the experience as flying “right into the jaws of hell.”
The plane is trembling, and there is lightning outside. People are yelling. Luggage drops from overhead compartments, and cups fly through the air. Juliane overhears her mother exclaim, “Now it’s all over.” It’d be the last time she heard her own voice. Juliane’s seat tumbles through the air on its own. The specifics of what happened are yet unknown. The plane most likely split apart owing to a lightning strike, and the seat ejected with her still in it.
Juliane collapses. She goes unconscious. The rain continues to fall. She comes to. The jungle is approaching. She compares the dense tree canopies to broccoli heads. She feels the belt squeezing her throat. She is lying on soft jungle ground when she regains consciousness. Her body is caked in dirt, and her glasses have vanished. Her left eye is inflamed, she has a concussion, a shattered collarbone, and other flesh wounds, yet she is still alive. She recalls afterwards that she didn’t feel afraid at the time, but rather a “boundless feeling of abandonment.”
“I will never forget the image I saw when I opened my eyes: the treetops of the jungle giants and golden light illuminating all the shades of green,” she says of the first thing she noticed when she awoke. She looks for other survivors, particularly her mother, but she can’t find any. Colombian children also lost their mother in the plane tragedy. After being recovered, they reportedly told their grandfather that she had survived the crash for four days before dying.
Juliane discovers no wreckage or luggage, just a bag of fruit candies. She realizes she must flee the crash site if she is to survive; the canopy where she crashed is so dense that search planes cannot find her. Juliane walks off in her summer dress, wearing only one sandal and carrying a candy bag, and soon comes across a trickle of water. This revelation gives her immense optimism, she says later in her book. This discovery most likely saved her life. She is aware that even the smallest streams eventually become creeks, which become larger watercourses that eventually run into rivers.
She follows the flowing water during the day and seeks a sheltered location near the riverbank at night. The intensity of daylight tells the time. When it rains, the heavy drops and the cold keep her awake, and when it’s dry, mosquitoes and midges annoy her. She thinks a lot about her mother and holds out hope that she has already been saved. She eats nothing else besides the candy. She can’t catch fish or cook roots because she doesn’t have a knife or a lighter. Colombian youngsters were able to subsist on wild mangoes and passion fruits, as well as food parcels dropped by the military over the jungle.
However, because it is the wet season in December, Juliane finds few fruits. Juliane comes across a big river on the sixth day. She begins by wading through the water to avoid treading on venomous snakes or spiders, and then lets herself to be carried by the stream in the center of the river. Although there are caimans, she is aware that they rarely assault humans. “My advantage was that I had spent enough time in the jungle.” “My parents were zoologists, and there wasn’t much they hadn’t shown me,” she writes in her book.
Swimming, resting, hoping, and questioning. Juliane’s strength dwindles as the days pass. The sun burns her flesh, and flies lay their eggs in her sores. She begins to imagine, seeing rooftops and hearing chickens cluck. “I can hardly motivate myself anymore, knowing that if I don’t eat, I’ll die.” “However, what?” Later, she writes. On January 3, 1972, she sits down on a gravel bank and sees the boat with its shelter, where she is discovered and rescued by three loggers.
She is only now, decades later, able to speak about her experience. “Only recently did it become clear to me how I’ve lived the past 40 years: surrounded by an armor that is slowly crumbling now,” she told the Süddeutsche Zeitung in 2014. Even at the crash site, she built a “shield” to keep the “terrible things” at bay and survive in the bush. Juliane’s father transferred her to her aunt in Kiel, Germany, after the tragedy, where she finished high school. She went on to study biology and eventually received a doctorate in bats.
Later, she was the deputy director of the Zoological State Collection in Munich, and she is still the director of her parents’ Panguana research station in Peru. She was given the Federal Cross of Merit in 2021 for her dedication to ecology and the inhabitants of the Peruvian rainforest. She subsequently stated that throughout the cold, restless evenings in the forest, she often wondered why she, of all others, had survived. She gradually realized that she wished to carry on her parents’ legacy. “I was given a second chance at life.” I use it to keep the forest safe.”