In December 1971, 17-year-old Juliane Koepcke and her mother were traveling to see her father on LANSA Flight 508 when the plane was felled by lightning and broke apart. Considered the worst lightning strike in history, the crash ultimately led to the loss of every passenger on board - except Koepcke. The teenager plunged two miles through the air to the floor of a Peruvian jungle, still strapped to her seat. Despite this harrowing experience, she lived to tell the tale. Koepcke, who miraculously suffered only minimal harm, ventured through the forest for 11 days seeking help.
The tragic stories of people such as Christopher McCandless, who passed while attempting to survive alone in the wilderness, often haunt those with aspirations of adventure. Thanks to Koepcke's knowledge of the rainforest, however, she survived on her own for over a week. While the facts about Koepcke's life are remarkable, the details of her survival are even more mind-blowing.
She Kept Her Seatbelt Fastened During Impact
Because Koepcke passed out several times, her ability to reconstruct the sequence of events was limited. Most notably, she recalled the engine roaring, people screaming, and the plane taking a steep dive toward the ground.
As the aircraft broke apart mid-air, Koepcke's mother and the man sitting next to her were ejected from their seats. Koepcke believes she lost consciousness when her seat detached from the plane - her next memory is only of the wind, which she described as "incredibly calm" compared to the thunderous noise of the aircraft ripping apart.
Koepcke lost consciousness as she spun downward toward the forest canopy - which she claimed resembled broccoli - and remembers nothing of the impact. Her seat turned as she fell, which may have saved her:
[My row of seats] was rotating much like the helicopter, and that might have slowed the fall. Also, the place I landed had very thick foliage, and that might have lessened the impact.
She Climbed Under Her Seat To Escape The Rain
As her watch was still functional, Koepcke knows she regained consciousness around 9 am - the crash occurred around 1:30 pm the previous day. She had a concussion, and Koepcke believes she must have come to several times before she was fully conscious, as she was already unbuckled from her seat when she awoke. If she was alert during that intermediary period, she retains no memories of it.
Koepcke reenacted the scenario with director Werner Herzog, who headed a documentary about her harrowing experience called Wings of Hope. When Koepcke awoke, soaking and dirty, she was under her seat. Afterward, she partially recalled pulling herself under her seat to escape the rain. Koepcke remembered forcing herself to get up once she regained consciousness.
She Felt Little Pain Due To Adrenaline
Koepcke miraculously only broke her collarbone in the fall. She sustained a deep cut on her calf but was in such a state of shock that it bled minimally. A small opening on her upper arm became one of her most worrisome, as it became infected with maggots and caused her to fear eventual amputation, though this worry was never realized.
Doctors later discovered Koepcke also fractured her shin, strained her vertebrae, and tore her ACL. Koepcke claims she didn't notice her torn ACL until she was in the hospital, at which time she developed a high fever and swelling.
She Used The Call Of A King Vulture To Find Other Passengers
On the fourth day, Koepcke heard the distinctive sound of a king vulture landing in the forest - she recognized the noise from living in the jungles of Peru with her parents when she was younger. She also knew they only land when carrion is present.
Koepcke moved toward it and discovered the bodies of three fellow passengers:
When I turned a corner in the creek, I found a bench with three passengers rammed head first into the earth... I thought my mother could be one of them, but when I touched the corpse with a stick, I saw that the woman's toenails were painted - my mother never polished her nails.