Take a moment and look back at your life when you were just 17. What was the biggest problem in your life? Maybe you wondered whether your crush liked you back, or if you would do well on your algebra test. Few people these days have to deal with any truly stressful situations as a teenager, which makes Juliane Koepcke’s story so incredible.
Koepcke’s family is German, but they had settled in Peru, where both her parents worked as zoologists. Juliane and her mother were traveling from Lima, where she was in school, to Pucallpa to meet her father. It was a stormy night, and their airline, Lansa, had a bad safety reputation, but they took a chance because they were desperate to have the family together on Christmas Day.
Mid-flight, a bolt of lightning tore the plane’s right wing off, sucking passengers out of the cabin. «We were headed straight down,» Koepcke remembered years later for CNN. «Christmas presents were flying around the cabin and I could hear people screaming.
«Suddenly there was this amazing silence. The plane was gone. I must have been unconscious and then came to in midair. I was flying, spinning through the air and I could see the forest spinning beneath me.» The plane had been 10,000 feet above the Amazon jungle when it tore apart, and Koepcke dropped the entire distance strapped into her row of seats.
Experts say the drag caused by the seats, along with their position and the thick, leafy trees she fell on are what saved Koepcke’s life. Miraculously, she survived the crash with only a broken collarbone, a cut on her arm and a swollen eye.
But it was a case of falling out of the frying pan and into the fire, because now Koepcke was alone in the jungle.
The first thing Koepcke did was look for her mother Maria, who had been sitting beside her. She must have slipped out of her seat, because Koepcke never found her. She did find a bag of candy, which would be her only food for the next 10 days as she searched for help.
Juliane’s father Hans had taught her some survival tricks, and they would wind up saving her life. She knew from his advice to follow a stream, because it would lead to a village or camp and give her clean water to drink.
She walked and floated downstream for days, not sleeping at night because the constant insect bites kept her awake. She also crossed paths with devil rays, piranhas and crocodiles, but remembering biology lessons from her parents kept her nerves calm.
«Sometimes I would see a crocodile on the bank and it would start into the water towards me, but I was not afraid,» she said. «I knew crocodiles don’t tend to attack humans.»
After 9 days in the stream, Koepcke stumbled onto a boat. Using another lesson from her father, she did some emergency first aid on the infected cut in her arm by spraying it with gasoline to disinfect it and clear out parasites.
The next day loggers found her by the boat and took her to safety. Koepcke and her father moved back to Germany while she recovered, but later in life she became a biologist and moved back to Peru.
Looking back on her miraculous story years later Koepcke says the worst part of the experience wasn’t the constant danger, but the guilt she felt being the only survivor from the plane.
“I had nightmares for a long time, for years, and of course the grief about my mother’s death and that of the other people came back again and again. The thought Why was I the only survivor? haunts me. It always will.”