In late December of 1971, German director Werner Herzog was scouting locations for his film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, (a good one!) when he decided to change his itinerary at the last moment and didn’t board LANSA Flight 508. Lucky thing he didn’t, because the plane was struck by lightening, broke apart and disintegrated two miles up, and crashed deep in the Amazon.
Amazingly, one passenger, a 17-year-old German girl named Juliane Koepcke not only survived the crash, but spent 11 days hiking through the jungle until she came upon a loggers, who rescued her. The next day, a pilot flew her to a hospital in Peru where she recovered.
Twenty-five years later, Herzog revisited the astonishing survival story in his film Wings of Hope (1998). Koepcke accompanied him on a visit to the crash site, a journey she described as “a kind of therapy” for her. She went on to write a book, When I fell from the Sky, that was published in 2011. She wrote that she 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 of why was I the only survivor haunts me. It always will.”
Over the years, there was a documentary about her experience and another movie, Miracles Still Happen in 1974. Her story has led to much speculation about why she survived. She said that she had remained strapped in her seat and fell with a section of three attached seats. Possibly, the seats acted as a parachute, slowing her fall. Also, possibly updrafts from the storm and landing in the dense forest also contributed to her survival.
She credited her parents, who had taught her jungle survival skills, for her ability to survive in the jungle for 11 days following the crash. She came upon a stream and followed it, recalling that her father had told her that streams would eventually lead to civilization. After ten days, she came upon a boat, and waited there. She poured gasoline from the engine on her injuries to kill the maggots. The next morning, loggers arrived and took her to their village.
She and her parents, who were biologists, had established a research station in the Amazon Rain Forest three years earlier, and Juliane had become “a jungle child.” She went on to follow in her parents’ footsteps and became a mammologist. Now known as Juliane Diller, she serves as librarian at the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology in Munich.