The teenage girl who fell from a plane and woke up in the jungle

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Juliane Koepcke’s flight was meant to last less than an hour. She and her mother had boarded the plane at Lima, Peru, bound for Pucallpa, a port city that runs along the Ucayali River. Their final destination was Panguana, a biological research station in the Amazon jungle, where she had been living on and off for years with her mother and father, Maria and Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke, both of whom were established zoologists. But, for the 17-year-old, something unexpected happened. While flying high above Peru, the plane entered a thunderstorm. As chaos descended, people screaming and panicking, Juliane, from a window seat in the back row, saw a bolt of lightning strike the plane’s right wing. The aircraft nosedived and tumbled towards the ground.

“The next thing I knew, I was no longer inside the cabin,” she told the New York Times in 2021. “I was outside, in the open air. I hadn’t left the plane; the plane had left me.”

It was Christmas Eve, 1971. Everyone on the flight had died but Juliane. She had fallen around 10,000 feet, a distance of almost two miles. Her life was saved, it is thought, by a row of soft seats which cushioned her fall.

Her injuries were minor: A sprained knee; a broken collarbone; cuts to her right shoulder and left calf; an eye swollen shut. Her vision was impaired — she had lost her glasses. Now, she was tasked with surviving the next stage: being alone in a remote part of the jungle.

In her 2011 memoir, When I Fell From the Sky, she wrote: “I lay there, almost like an embryo for the rest of the day and a whole night, until the next morning. I am completely soaked, covered with mud and dirt, for it must have been pouring rain for a day and a night.”

She knew the sounds of the birds and the frogs around her, and soon realised she was in familiar territory. “I recognised the sounds of wildlife from Panguana and realised I was in the same jungle and had survived the crash,” she said. “What I experienced was not fear but a boundless feeling of abandonment.”

Juliane had only a bag of sweets to sustain her, and, on Christmas Day, set out, walking through the Amazon, risking encountering all manner of animals, deadly plants, insects, and disease.

It was the wet season, so there was no fruit, no way to make fire. She drank water from the river, and, for 11 days, despite the odds stacked against her, walked, trudged, and swam to safety.

Fifty years on, she’s still there

For many, a return to the site which played an era-defining moment in your life might be too much.

But, for Juliane, now Dr Juliane Diller, the very jungle in which she found herself the lone survivor of a freak accident is today her place of work.

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After the crash, Dr Diller moved to Germany and studied for a PhD in biology, shortly after becoming a well-respected zoologist like her parents.

Then, in 1989, she married Erich Diller, an entomologist and an authority on parasitic wasps.

Dr Diller has been drawn back to Panguana — which was established by her parents in 1968 — ever since the crash.

In 1981, she spent 18 months in residence at the station during her studies, researching diurnal butterflies, and later her doctoral dissertation on bats. In 2000, on the death of her father, she took over as station director, and became the main organiser of international expeditions there.

She said: “The jungle caught me and saved me. It was not its fault that I landed there.

“On my lonely 11-day hike back to civilization, I made myself a promise. I vowed that if I stayed alive, I would devote my life to a meaningful cause that served nature and humanity.”

While traumatic, Dr Diller said the crash had “helped me again and again to keep a cool head even in difficult situations,” and to realise that “nothing is really safe, not even the solid ground I walked on”.

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However, the memories still haunt her. “Above all, of course, the moment when I had to accept that really only I had survived and that my mother had indeed died,” she said.

“Then there was the moment when I realised that I no longer heard any search planes and was convinced that I would surely die, and the feeling of dying without ever having done anything of significance in my young life.”

She became something of a celebrity because of the crash, especially after an Italian biopic of the event hit the screens. Miracles Still Happen, as it was titled, depicts Dr Diller as someone who appears not to know what to do in the crash’s aftermath. But this was not the case.

Other reports from the time were equally inaccurate. An account in Life magazine from 1972 states that she made her getaway after building a raft of vines and branches — perhaps something you’d ordinarily see in an adventure film.

And, the German weekly, Stern, showed her eating a cake she found in the wreckage, in the process, the New York Times reports, implying “that she was arrogant and unfeeling” about the event.

Werner Herzog – the famed German film director who was meant to be on the same ill-fated flight but changed plans at the last minute – talked Dr Diller into travelling to the crash site in Peru to revisit that fateful day.

The end product, a film called Wings of Hope, saw her recount in gruesome detail the moment she, on the fourth day in the jungle, came across a row of seats in which a woman and two men were still strapped, having landed headfirst with such force they were buried three feet into the ground, legs jutting into the sky.

She told the publication: “It was horrifying. I didn’t want to touch them, but I wanted to make sure that the woman wasn’t my mother. I grabbed a stick and turned one of her feet carefully so I could see the toenails. They were polished, and I took a deep breath. My mother never used polish on her nails.”

Making the documentary, Dr Diller said, became part of the healing process: “At the time of the crash, no one offered me any formal counselling or psychological help. I had no idea that it was possible to even get help,” she said.

Things are better now, and Panguana is constantly growing, learning more and more about the natural world.

Just last year, under Dr Diller’s oversight, the station increased its outreach to nearby Indigenous communities, offering work, providing financing for a new schoolhouse, and raising awareness about the effects, both short and long-term, that humans have on Earth’s biodiversity.

“Just to have helped people and to have done something for nature means it was good that I was allowed to survive,” she said.

“And for that I am so grateful.”

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