Juliane Koepcke

Juliane Koepcke

Name: Juliane Koepcke (1954-Present)

Place: Amazon Jungle

Feat: Only survivor of 92-person plane crash. Fell 2-miles from the sky then walked for 10 days through the Amazon with no food


It's Christmas Eve 1971. Juliane Koepcke is 17 years old, has just graduated from high school, and is now flying home from Lima with her mother for the holidays. Originally, Juliane and her mother were planning to fly out a few days earlier, but Juliane begs her mother to fly on the 24th so that she can attend her high school prom.

Juliane Koepcke At Prom

Soon into the flight, the plane hits a savage storm and begins to experience some turbulence. By turbulence, we’re not talking about the kind that causes you to grab your complimentary Diet Coke to keep it from spilling. We’re talking about the kind where the cabin is pitch-black, luggage is falling from the racks, and people are flying out of their seats.

During the mayhem, Juliane looks out the window and sees a blinding flash on the plane’s right wing. She doesn't know it at the time, but this flash is a bolt of lightning severing the wing from the plane. Without that wing, the plane starts to nosedive into a free fall.

What happens in the next few minutes is nothing short of a miracle, even Juliane isn't sure what happened. First of all, the 25-ton plane is suddenly no longer around her. One second she is sitting in a row next to her mother inside the plane and the next she is plummeting to the earth in the same row outside of the plane. As she describes it: “All of a sudden I was outside of the plane. It wasn’t so much that I had left the plane, but rather the plane had left me." Somehow still strapped into her seat, Juliane plunges from 2 MILES into the Amazon jungle. 

LANSA Flight 508 Route

After a few hours of (understandable) unconsciousness, Juliane wakes up on the jungle floor with a major concussion, both eyes swollen shut, a fractured collarbone, a gashed leg, and one shoe. Some people wake up in that condition after a night out so considering she’s just fallen 2 MILES, she’s not doing too bad. That is insane. Not only did she fall from 10,000ft and survive, but she was also able to walk under her own power within a few hours. 

Inhuman resilience to injury aside, Juliane is still in a bit of a bind. Being alone in the Amazon with food, water, and no injuries is not a good place to be. Takeaway the food and water, and add in some severe injuries and that's a tough place to be indeed. 

This is the point where most people would find the nearest tree to curl up under and breakdown into hysterics. Juliane? Not a chance. While fighting unconsciousness from her concussion, she makes her way to the crash site to see what she can scavenge for supplies. She comes up empty, but she does find a small trickle of water that turns out to be invaluable. Juliane knows that if she keeps following the flow of water, she’ll eventually reach a major waterway and people. 

Amazon Mist At Dusk

For the next 10 days, Juliane treks continuously through a jungle that’s filled with jaguars, tarantulas, and poisonous frogs and a river that’s home to piranhas, crocodiles, and poisonous stingrays. Crocodiles in particular she sees everywhere. She later said that when the crocs saw her “they would hurl themselves from the riverbanks, diving straight at her.” Instead of running into the jungle like a normal person, Juliane stays her ground and the crocs just circle around her. 

Amazon Crocodile

Although she's on good terms with the wildlife, Juliane still hasn’t eaten anything, has no shelter, and has a number of brutal injuries. The injury that gives her the most trouble is a cut on her arm that has been infested with maggots. Once they've eaten a hole in her arm the size of a golf ball, Juliane starts to worry that they might poison her blood and cause her to lose the arm. But with no medical supplies, all she can do is endure it.

At nights, she sits with her back against a tree and covers herself in leaves for some sort of cover. However, the torrential rain showers, which she describes as “ice cold, like stinging needles”,  often make sleep impossible. So instead, she sits awake shivering the whole night, waiting for sunrise so she can start all over.

On her tenth day of this gauntlet, Juliane semi-conscious and extremely weak stumbles upon a small boat that’s pulled up on the river bank. At first, she thinks that it's a hallucination and doesn't believe it's real until she physically touches it. Not seeing an owner, she decides to crawl to a nearby shelter to wait  for someone to show up. Within hours, a few Peruvian lumberjacks show-up and are shocked to find this blond teenager alone in the middle of the Amazon. Because the possibility of her being a real person seems so far fetched, the lumberjacks think that she's a water goddess.

Juliane Koepcke Rescued

With fading energy, Juliane tells them that she's a survivor of the crash and they immediately help her. They clean her maggot-infested wound with gasoline, put her on the boat, and speed her to a hospital. Juliane’s eyes were so bloodshot by this point that people they encountered along the way thought she was a "forest demon". A few days later, Juliane reunites with her father and learns that she is the only survivor of the 92-person crash.

Juliane survived an ordeal that would kill most humans who attempted it fully-rested. The fact that shea 17 year-old high schoolerwas able to persevere for 10 days with no food, limited sleep, and critical injuries in the Amazon jungle after falling TWO MILES from a plane is absolutely remarkable and is a testament to her physical toughness, iron will, and mental fortitude. Next time you think that you can’t go to the gym, go for a run, or whatever else because you haven't eaten in 4 hours, think of Juliane. Think of the 10 days she went without food and know that you can do all of those things and more. Much more.

Afterword: Juliane would go on to fully recover from her wounds, receive a PhD in Biology, and the Corine Literature Prize for her autobiography.

If you have a historical figure who you think embodies the human spirit of grit and perseverance, send your suggestion to perspective@atlasbars.com