The Woman Who Fell to Earth

By Tom Littlewood

Portrait by Martin Fengel

Juliane Koepcke was born a German national in Lima, Peru, in 1954, the daughter of a world-renowned zoologist (Hans-Wilhelm) and an equally revered ornithologist (Maria). As a teenager, Juliane was enrolled at a Peruvian high school. Her parents were stationed several hundred miles away, manning a remote research outpost in the heart of the Amazon. Juliane herself was no stranger to the swelteringly harsh Amazonian environment and was well versed in the inner workings of its volatile ecosystem. It was this knowledge that would later save her life.

On Christmas Eve 1971, only hours after her high school graduation ceremony, 17-year-old Juliane and her mother boarded a plane that was to cross the Peruvian rain forest. They were heading home to celebrate Christmas with her father. The plane flew into a volatile thunderstorm and was obliterated in seconds—killing all 92 passengers except for Juliane. After being thought dead for 11 days, she emerged from the jungle and was reunited with her father.

The details of this remarkable escape were revisited in Wings of Hope, a little-known documentary that was made for German television by Werner Herzog in 2000. Not enough people have seen this film or heard Juliane’s story, so Vice recently spoke with her and asked her to tell it to us all over again.

Vice: Can you describe the atmosphere in the airport when you arrived there to take that doomed flight? Did anything seem amiss?
Juliane Koepcke:
It was completely normal. The flight was delayed, but they have delays in Peru all the time, so no one thought anything of it. I remember it was very crowded in the airport and all the people wanted to go home to spend Christmas with their families. We saw the machine outside, a turboprop Electra. It looked really neat. Of course you can’t tell when you’re not a technician, but to me it seemed perfect. Then we boarded the plane and for the first 30 minutes everything was fine.

Did you choose to sit by the window yourself?
Yes, because I used to love sitting next to the window and looking outside. My mother didn’t care so much. We sat in the very back. That was by chance, of course. We sat in the second-to-last row.

When did you notice for the first time that something wasn’t quite right?
Only once we flew into the thunderstorm. They served sandwiches about half an hour after takeoff, and we were supposed to land 20 minutes later. It’s a total flight time of 50 to 60 minutes to where we going, a place called Pucallpa.

How did the trouble begin?
The clouds became thicker. I used to love flying, so I didn’t really pay that much attention to the weather. Then my mother started getting nervous and said, “I don’t like this.” The clouds became darker and darker and the flight became more turbulent. Then we were in the midst of pitch-black clouds and a proper storm with thunder and lightning.

Were the other passengers as nervous as your mother?
My mother wasn’t exactly nervous. She was merely concerned, but you couldn’t really tell from the outside. The other passengers were still calm. They weren’t happy about it, but you couldn’t really feel that. It was pitch-black all around us and there was constant lightning. Then I saw a glistening light on the right wing and my mother said: “Now it’s over.” The motor was hit by lightning. This machine had turbines with propellers. After that, everything went super-fast. What really happened is something you can only try to reconstruct in your mind. We only found out later that turboprop Electra machines weren’t designed for this kind of heavy turbulence. Their wings are too stiff. The bolt that hit the plane probably caused it to break up in midair, because it definitely didn’t explode.

When your mother said, “Now it’s over,” did that comment mean anything to you at all?
No, I didn’t really have the chance to think about it. I registered it and then I had a blackout. There’s one thing I remember: I heard the incredibly loud motor and people screaming and then the plane fell extremely steeply. And then it was calm—incredibly calm compared with the noise before that. I could only hear the wind in my ears. I was still attached to my seat. My mother and the man sitting by the aisle had both been propelled out of their seats. I was free-falling, that’s what I registered for sure. I was in a tailspin. I saw the forest beneath me—like “green cauliflower, like broccoli,” is how I described it later on. Then I lost consciousness and regained it only way later, the next day.

What did you feel while all of this happened? Was it terror, or were you in shock?
I wasn’t scared; I didn’t have time for that. Even while I was falling I wasn’t afraid. I just realized that the seatbelt was putting pressure on my stomach and my head was upside down. But that’s about it—it was probably only fractions of a second. Or maybe I blocked it out. Either way, I don’t remember it.

OK, and then you woke up the next day on the jungle floor?
The next morning, actually. The crash was around 1:30 PM, and the next morning around nine I looked at my wristwatch. It was still intact and only stopped working later on. Then I realized I was on the ground and I knew right away what had happened. I had a serious concussion, so I couldn’t sit up. My eye was swollen. My glasses—which I’d had since I was 14 because I’m nearsighted—were gone. I was lying underneath my seat and I wasn’t strapped in anymore. I could see a bit of the forest but also a bit of the sky. I knew that I had survived a plane crash. The concussion and the shock only let me realize basic facts. I didn’t really think about myself. I was more concerned about where my mother was. That’s the first thing I remember. I had probably woken up and lost consciousness again a couple of times before that, due to the heavy concussion. I must have released myself from the seat because I was definitely strapped in when I fell. That’s what Werner Herzog reconstructed later on, too. We know I was attached to the seat, which must have turned and buffered the crash. Otherwise I wouldn’t have survived. I also know that I had crawled under the seat because it was raining. I used to dream about this. I dreamed that I was dirty and soaked and would only have to get up to take a shower. Then I have a tiny fragment of a memory, of pulling myself under that seat to protect myself from the rain. Then I thought, “I just have to get up,” and when I made up my mind to do that, I woke up.

Can you remember how it felt to be under this concussion?
I couldn’t really feel anything; it was like being wrapped in cotton balls. With a lot of effort I could only get up on my knees, then everything turned black again. I couldn’t see very well with one eye and I only found out later that the crash and the difference in pressure inside and outside of the plane made the capillaries in my eyes pop. That’s why the whites of my eyes were blood red. I probably looked like a zombie from a movie. I couldn’t feel it, though. I wasn’t in any pain and my head didn’t hurt either. I was just dizzy and every once in a while everything turned black. In the beginning I lost consciousness all the time. It took half a day until I could get up and walk.


 

 

Juliane Koepcke on January 4, 1972, on the plane to Pucallpa just after she was found in the jungle.
Photo by Harold Sells Jr., courtesy of Juliane Koepke.

And naturally, your first thought was to find your mother.
I searched for a full day and then I realized there was no one there. I crawled around all over the place and called out, but I couldn’t hear anything. In the afternoon on that same day, I found a little well and I remembered what my father had once told me: If you get lost in the jungle and you find water, you should follow it.

Why?
A small stream will flow into a bigger one and then into a bigger one and an even bigger one, and finally you’ll run into help. When I found that water, I had a goal and I knew what I had to do to attain it. Of course it was easy for me to leave because I didn’t find any survivors at the crash site. If I had found someone who was injured, then I probably would have stayed and that would have meant death for both of us.

Did you come across dead bodies?
Yes, once. It was the fourth day after the crash. I found a row of seats, drilled into the ground. The impact must have been so hard that it drilled itself three feet deep into the ground. The three people strapped into these seats must have been killed right away. That was an ugly moment. It was the second time I had ever seen a dead body. The first time had been a little child. I had seen a child that I didn’t really know, lying in state at a funeral.

How did you handle seeing these crash victims?
I had already sensed that I’d come across dead bodies because I had heard this noise, the sound that king vultures make when they land. King vultures are big condors, the biggest new-world vultures in South America, and I knew this sound because I had lived at my parents’ station for one and a half years prior to the crash. When I heard that sound, I knew there must have been a big dead animal or human somewhere nearby. And that’s exactly how it was. I came around a crook of the stream and found this row of seats. I couldn’t really see that much, only people’s feet pointing up. I poked their feet with a stick. I couldn’t touch the dead bodies. I couldn’t smell anything and they hadn’t been eaten yet or started to decay. I mean, sure, decay must have started, but I couldn’t notice it. I could tell it was a woman because she had polished toenails and the others must have been two men, judging by their pants and shoes. I moved on after a while, but in the first moment after finding them, it was like I was paralyzed.

From fear?
I don’t know exactly. Maybe it was respect for death and the thought that they hadn’t made it…

Soon after this, you started to hear and see rescue planes far above.
Yes, but I couldn’t draw their attention to me, and after a while, I didn’t see them above me anymore, and that’s when I knew they had stopped searching. Of course my thinking went into different directions: They have found the machine or they have given up. Either way I knew that I was truly on my own and they wouldn’t continue looking for me.

How did that feel?
It was a feeling of hopelessness. I wasn’t in pain or panic, but I knew that I had to rely on my own strength to get out of there. I didn’t know that the river that I’d found was uninhabited and I was still hoping to find help soon because it was such a wide river. But then as the day moved along I felt that it was strange that the wild animals were so tame: monkeys, martens, brocket deer—you wouldn’t normally see them. Plus, there were lots of fallen trees in the water, which is an indicator that a river isn’t traveled. That made me think, but then I blocked those thoughts out—of there possibly not being any help out there.

Also, you weren’t entirely uninjured in the crash.
I had a deep cut on my left calf, but it didn’t bleed a lot. That’s a common thing when people are in shock—the bleeding isn’t very strong even though the cut is deep. I ended up with a lot of scar tissue in that place after being in the water all the time, floating down the river and swimming. Also, my right collarbone was broken. I could feel that the bone was broken and overlapping. Nothing came through the skin, though. It wasn’t an open wound.

You only broke one bone after falling from the sky?
Well, other things were found later when I saw a doctor. I had strained the vertebrae in my neck and I had a partially fractured shin, but that was a fissure only, not too bad. And I tore my ACL—which was the worst of all the injuries, actually, but I didn’t know about that until I was in a hospital bed. That’s when the swelling and the 104-degree fever set in.

So, in the jungle, you didn’t just block things out mentally but also physically.
The only thing that made me nervous, or let’s say concerned me, was this little patch on my upper arm. It wasn’t any tragic wound or anything, but it was small and open and flies had laid their eggs in it. The maggots hatched underneath my skin and ate a hole into my arm.

Oh my God.
I was afraid they might have to amputate my arm. After our dog had a similar thing—I think it was the same kind of fly too—it got infected. I was concerned and I thought, “I have to do something about this. I have to get these maggots out of my arm.” But that wasn’t exactly easy. I had this ring that was open on one side that you could squeeze together, and I tried with that. It didn’t work because the hole was so deep. So I tried with a stick, but that didn’t work either. Only after ten days, when I found a boat with a motor and a barrel of diesel fuel, was I able to do the same thing we had done to our dog—pour petroleum into the wound. That brought the maggots to the surface. Not all of them, but the majority. The people who found me and the doctor who treated me extracted the rest.

Let’s focus on the boat for a moment. Ten days in the jungle, and you just came across it?
It was weird. At first I couldn’t believe it. I was very weak. It was early afternoon on the tenth day. I couldn’t go on, so I let myself sink into this riverbank and doze off. I thought to myself that I had to find a place to sleep now that the sunlight was slanted. My watch had stopped working and I had to pay attention to the sun. I always looked for a place that was even ground, a little bluff or slope or possibly a thick tree, so nothing could come up to me from the back. But then I sat up and I saw this boat just sitting there. I thought that I was hallucinating at first, that I was starting to lose my mind. I stared at the boat and moved toward it slowly. I couldn’t move fast because I was so weak. Then I touched it. It was a real boat, with an external motor, not like a tree with paddles or something. I saw a little path close by, leading into the forest. I took it and tried to crawl uphill. It was very hard because I was so weak. I could barely make it up there. It took me ages to climb up this hill.

What did you find up there?
A little shack. Just a hut without walls, a floor made from palm bark, covered with a roof. That’s where I found the motor and the barrel, covered with a plastic tarp. I tried to medicate myself. I found a little tube for sucking up diesel, which I used to get some of it into my wound. The pain was agonizing. Then the sun went down and I slept underneath this tarp. The ground was too hard, so I went back down by the water and I lay down in the sand. The next day I went up to the hut again because it was pouring rain. I spent the morning there. There were frogs everywhere. I thought that I should eat something or I’d die.

That sounds so matter-of-fact.
I had always thought that it would be agonizing to starve, but I wasn’t in any pain. I was so apathetic and weak that I didn’t really care anymore. Nevertheless, I tried to catch some of those frogs.


Juliane Koepcke in Lima, just before prom on December 22, 1971 (the night before the crash). Photo courtesy of Juliane Koepcke.

You were going to eat them?
Yeah, but that wouldn’t have been the best of ideas. They were poisonous dart frogs, highly toxic. I was too slow to catch them anyway. Then it stopped raining and I should have moved on, but my willpower was gone. I thought, “Oh well, I might as well stay another night and go on tomorrow.” And in the moment when I made my decision to stay there for another night, after I realized there wasn’t any point in moving on, I suddenly heard voices. I couldn’t believe it at first. As Herzog put it, it was like hearing angels’ voices. Three people emerged from the forest. When they saw me, they were pretty freaked out. My eyes were still bloodshot. Even though ten days had passed, they were bright red. I must have looked terrible. I spoke perfect Spanish, so I told them what had happened and who I was. They had heard about the crash on the radio. They gave me food and took care of my wounds, and we spent the night there in the hut.

What did the people who found you seem to think?
They believe in all sorts of ghosts there, and at first they thought that I was one of these water spirits called Yemanjá. They are blonds, supposedly. So that was the first thing that went through their minds, as they later told me. They took me downstream in their boat the next day. In the afternoon we reached a small town and went to a local hospital. That’s where they initially took care of my injuries. There was a female pilot there who belonged to some missionaries who were staying in a little village near Pucallpa. She brought me there in her tiny plane, a two-prop airliner. Even though it was a really short flight, that didn’t feel great. But it was only 15 minutes until we arrived at the home of these missionaries, where they cared for me until I was OK again.

What was it like when you saw your father again?
We didn’t exchange a lot of words, but we had each other again. Of course there was this thought of what had happened to my mother. They found the plane with the help of my directions, but it took a couple more days to find and identify the dead bodies. When they identified my mother, we… then it was real that I was the only survivor and that I had lost her. The real mourning set in way later, because after the crash I was constantly being interviewed and interrogated by the air force and police. My father quickly sold the exclusive rights to the story to the German magazine Stern. They came out right away and I had to give interviews to them. That was a massive distraction. I couldn’t take the sudden fame very well. I was famous overnight. Everybody knew about me. I received letters from all over the world, which was very touching. I couldn’t understand at first why people would write to me.

What did it feel like to go back to the crash site with Werner Herzog?
It was very weird. They had to search for the site of the crash. Everything was overgrown with plants, it was thick rain forest. They had to build paths to the individual pieces of the wreck, which were still lying around in the exact same places where they’d fallen. They cleared a landing space for a helicopter. Once we got there, I was pretty detached. Well, not detached—but I wasn’t upset.

Do you think that you benefited from that experience?
I learned a lot of new things, things that completed my memories and experience. It was almost therapeutic. It helped me psychologically. That’s where I told the whole story to Herzog. I really focused on it, on doing it well, so I didn’t really have the time to become upset. What stunned me the most was when we came to the wheels of the plane—one part of it was lying upside down with the wheels facing up. That was such a finite impression. It was like a dead animal. It symbolized this finality—that it’s really over.

You’re speaking directly to the camera in the movie. That’s pretty impressive and brave.
That was his idea. He was very gentle in directing me. He wanted me to tell things like I was telling them to myself, introspectively, without a lot of emotion or fidgeting. He didn’t want it to be very bubbly, but rather deliberate. You can see that in the movie.

It’s incredible how you managed to deal with this trauma, this horrific thing that happened to you.
Yes, and you have to consider that I didn’t have any psychological help either. Nowadays one would get that sort of help right away, but in the early 70s things were different and that wasn’t even on people’s minds. If I hadn’t managed to deal with it, that would have been my problem. Of course 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.
 

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