Juliane Diller (born 10 October 1954 in Lima as Juliane Margaret Koepcke) is a German biologist, born in Peru to German emigrants who is best known for being the sole survivor of 92 passengers and crew in the 24 December 1971, crash of LANSA Flight 508 (a LANSA Lockheed Electra OB-R-941 commercial airliner) in the Peruvian rain forest. After her airliner broke up in midair, she survived after falling about 3 km (10,000 feet) still strapped to her airliner seat, before the seat crashed through the rain forest canopy and came to rest on the forest floor.
Airplane crash: Juliane Koepcke was a German Peruvian high school senior student studying in Lima, intending to become a zoologist, like her parents. She and her mother, ornithologist Maria Koepcke, were traveling to meet with her father, biologist Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke, who was working in the city of Pucallpa.
The airplane was struck by lightning during a severe thunderstorm and broke up in mid-air, disintegrating at 3.2 km (10,000 ft). Koepcke, who was seventeen years old at the time, fell to earth still strapped into her seat. She survived the fall with only a broken collarbone, a gash to her right arm, and her right eye swollen shut. “I was definitely strapped in [the airplane seat] when I fell,” she remembered. “It must have turned and buffered the crash, otherwise I wouldn’t have survived.”
Her first priority was to find her mother, who had been seated next to her on the plane but her search was unsuccessful. With her eyeglasses lost and one eye swollen shut, she struggled to no avail. She later found out her mother had initially survived the crash as well, but died several days later due to her injuries.
Koepcke found some sweets which were to become her only food on her trip. After looking for her mother and other passengers, she was soon able to locate a small stream. She then waded through knee-high water downstream from her landing site, relying on the survival principle her father had taught her, that tracking downstream should eventually lead to civilization. The stream also provided clean water and a natural path through the dense rainforest vegetation.
During the trip, Koepcke couldn’t sleep at night due to numerous insect bites, which became infected. After nine days, several spent floating downstream, she found a boat moored near a shelter, where she found the boat’s motor and fuel tank. Relying again on her father’s advice, Koepcke poured gasoline on her wounds, which managed to extract thirty five maggots from one arm, then waited until rescuers arrived. She later recounted her necessary efforts that day: “I remember having seen my father when he cured a dog of worms in the jungle with gasoline. I got some gasoline and poured it on myself. I counted the worms when they started to slip out. There were 40 on my arm. I remained there but I wanted to leave. I didn’t want to take the boat because I didn’t want to steal it.”
“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.”
After some time passed while she was in the hut, she heard voices nearby. As the voices neared, she saw three lumbermen come out of the forest. At first, the lumbermen were startled, thinking she was a water spirit. However, she described her ordeal and, having heard about a plane crash, the lumbermen believed her and fed her and cared for her wounds. After caring for her for a short time, the lumbermen took her on a seven hour boat ride to a lumber village.
Once she arrived at the village, a local pilot volunteered to fly her to a nearby hospital in Pucallpa run by missionaries. The flight took about fifteen minutes and a day after arriving at the hospital, Koepcke was reunited with her father. After being reunited with her father, Koepcke helped search parties locate the crash site and the victims of the crash. On January 12th, the search parties discovered Maria Koepcke’s body. Apparently, her mother had survived the fall as well, however she was prevented from moving as a result of her intense injuries. Maria Koepcke died several days after the crash and ensuing fall.
About Flight 508
LANSA Flight 508 was a Lockheed L-188A Electra turboprop, registered OB-R-941, operated as a scheduled domestic passenger flight by Lineas Aéreas Nacionales Sociedad Anonima (LANSA), that crashed in a thunderstorm en route from Lima, Peru toPucallpa, Peru, on December 24, 1971, killing 91 people – all 6 of its crew and 85 of its 86 passengers.
The aircraft was flying at about 21,000 ft / 6,400 m above Mean Sea Level when it encountered an area of thunderstorms and severe turbulence. There was evidence the crew decided to continue the flight despite the hazardous weather ahead, apparently due to pressures related to meeting the holiday schedule.
Accident investigation report :
“About forty minutes after take-off, the aircraft entered a zone of strong turbulence and lightning. After flying for twenty minutes in this weather at FL210 lightning struck the aircraft, causing fire on the right wing which separated, along with part of the left wing. The aircraft crashed in flames into mountainous terrain.”
Her experience was widely reported and is the subject of two feature length documentary films. The first was I miracoli accadono ancora (1974) by Italian filmmaker Giuseppe Maria Scotese; it was released in English as Miracles Still Happen (1975) and is sometimes called The Story of Juliane Koepcke. Twenty-five years later, director Werner Herzog revisited the story in his film Wings of Hope (2000). Herzog was inspired to make the film as he narrowly avoided taking the very same flight while he was location scouting for Aguirre, Wrath of God. His reservation was canceled due to a last minute change in itinerary.
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