WHEN I FELL FROM THE SKY. The True Story of One Woman’s Miraculous Survival – Juliane Koepcke.

People are screaming in panic, shrill cries for help; the roar of the plummeting turbines, which I will hear again and again in my dreams, engulfs me.

And there, over everything, clear as glass, I hear my mother saying quite calmly: “Now it’s all over.”

From one moment to the next, the people’s screams go silent. It’s as if the roar of the turbines has been erased.

My mother is no longer at my side and I’m no longer in the airplane. I’m still strapped into my seat, but I’m alone.

At an altitude of about ten thousand feet, I’m alone.

And I’m falling, slicing through the sky about 2 miles above the earth.

The crash, of which I was the sole survivor, shaped the rest of my life, pointed it in a new direction and led me to where I am today.

Nature is always the same, whether we’re there or not, it doesn’t matter to it. But we, this too, I experienced firsthand during those eleven days in the rain forest, cannot survive without it.

“She did not leave the airplane, the airplane left her.” Werner Herzog

“He was the first person I saw, and it was as if an angel were coming toward me.” Juliane Koepcke, describing her rescuer

Christmas Eve, 1971

The flight from Lima to Pucallpa takes only about an hour. On December 24, 1971, the first thirty minutes are perfectly normal. Our fellow passengers are in high spirits. Everyone is excited to celebrate Christmas at home. The luggage bins are stuffed with presents, and everyone is settled in for the flight. After about twenty minutes, we’re served a small breakfast, which includes a sandwich and drink. Ten minutes later the stewardesses are cleaning up our areas.

Then, all of a sudden, we hit a storm front.

And this time it’s completely different from anything I’ve experienced before. The pilot does not avoid the thunderstorm, but flies straight into the cauldron of hell. It turns to night around us, in broad daylight. Lightning is flashing feverishly from all directions.

At the same time an invisible power begins to shake our airplane as if it were a plaything. The people cry out as objects fall on their heads from the violently opened overhead compartments. Bags, flowers, packages, toys, wrapped gifts, jackets and clothing rain down hard on us; sandwich trays and bags soar through the air; half-finished drinks splatter on our heads and shoulders. Everyone is frightened, and I hear screams and cries.

A few weeks before that flight on Christmas Eve, 1971, I had gone on an eight-day trip with my whole class. We flew to Arequipa in the southern part of the country, and in a letter to my grandmother I wrote: The flight was glorious! At the end of the trip, the return flight to Lima was extremely turbulent, and many of my classmates felt physically ill. But I wasn’t nervous at all. I even enjoyed the rocking. I was so naive that it didn’t even occur to me that something could happen.

My mother, however, doesn’t like to fly. She often says: “It’s totally unnatural that such a bird made of metal takes off into the air.” As an ornithologist, she sees this from a different standpoint than other people do. On one of her flights to the United States, she already had an experience that gave her a huge scare, when an engine malfunctioned. Even though nothing happened and the plane was still able to land safely with one engine, she was sweating.

“Hopefully, this goes all right,” my mother says.

I can feel her nervousness, while I myself am still pretty calm.

Then I suddenly see a blinding white light over the right wing. I don’t know whether it’s a flash of lightning striking there or an explosion. I lose all sense of time. I can’t tell whether all this lasts minutes or only a fraction of a second: I’m blinded by that blazing light.

With a jolt, the tip of the airplane falls steeply downward. Even though I’m in a window seat all the way in the back, I can see the whole aisle to the cockpit, which is below me. The physical laws have been suspended; it’s like an earthquake. No, it is worse. Because now we’re racing downward. We’re falling. People are screaming in panic, shrill cries for help; the roar of the plummeting turbines, which I will hear again and again in my dreams, engulfs me.

And there, over everything, clear as glass, I hear my mother saying quite calmly: “Now it’s all over.”

Today I know that at that moment she already grasped what would happen.

I, on the other hand, grasp nothing at all.

An intense astonishment comes over me, because now my ears, my head, no, I myself am completely filled with the deep roar of the plane, while its nose slants almost vertically downward. We’re plummeting. But this nosedive, too, I experience as if it lasted no longer than the blink of an eye. From one moment to the next, the people’s screams go silent. It’s as if the roar of the turbines has been erased.

My mother is no longer at my side and I’m no longer in the airplane. I’m still strapped into my seat, but I’m alone.

At an altitude of about ten thousand feet, I’m alone.

And I’m falling, slicing through the sky about 2 miles above the earth.

Many people wonder how I still manage to get on airplanes, for I am one of the few who have survived a plane crash from a great height. It was a catastrophe that occurred nearly ten thousand feet over the Peruvian rain forest. But that’s not all: After the crash I struggled for eleven days on my own through the jungle. At that time, when I fell from the sky, I was just seventeen years old.

Today I’m fifty-six. A good age for looking back. A good time to confront old, unhealed wounds and to share with other people my memories, which are just as fresh and alive after all these years. The crash, of which I was the sole survivor, shaped the rest of my life, pointed it in a new direction and led me to where I am today. Back then, newspapers all over the world were full of my story. Among them there were many half-truths and reports that had little to do with the actual events. Because of them, people still approach me to this day and ask about the crash. Everyone in Germany and Peru seems to know my story, and yet scarcely anyone has a genuine idea of what really happened back then.

Of course, it’s not so simple to understand that after eleven days fighting to survive in the “green hell of the jungle,” I still love the rain forest. The truth is: For me it was never a “green hell.” When I plunged to earth from such a great height, the forest saved my life. Without the leaves of trees and bushes cushioning my fall, I never could have survived the impact on the ground. When I was unconscious, it screened me from the tropical sun. And later it helped me find my way out of the untouched wilderness back to civilization.

Had I been a pure city child, I never would have made it back to life. It was my good fortune that I had already spent a few years of my young life in the “jungle.” (Nowadays the term “rain forest” is preferred to “jungle,” but we used the words interchangeably back then.) In 1968, my parents had realized their dream and founded a biological research station in the middle of the Peruvian rain forest. At the time, I was fourteen years old and less than thrilled about leaving behind my friends in Lima and moving with my parents, our dog and parakeet, the whole kit and caboodle, into the “middle of nowhere.” In any case that’s how I imagined it back then, even though my parents had taken me from an early age along on their expeditions.

The move to the jungle was a real adventure. On our arrival, I immediately fell in love with that life, as simple and modest as it might have been. For almost two years I lived in Panguana, as my parents had christened the research station after a native bird. In addition to being taught by them, I went to the school of the jungle. There I got to know its rules, its laws and its inhabitants. I became acquainted with the plant life, explored the world of animals.

Not for nothing was I the daughter of two well-known zoologists: My mother, Maria Koepcke, was Peru’s leading ornithologist, and my father, Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke, was the author of an important comprehensive work on the life-forms of the animal and plant world.

In Panguana, the jungle became my home, and there I learned which dangers loom in it and which don’t. I was familiar with the rules of conduct with which a person can survive in this extreme environment. As a child, my senses were already sharpened for the incredible wonders contained by this habitat, which leads in biodiversity worldwide. Yes, I was already learning to love the jungle back then.

Those eleven days far from settlements in the middle of the tropical rain forest, eleven days during which I didn’t hear a human voice and didn’t know where I was, those extraordinary days have made my attachment still deeper. At that time I formed a bond with the jungle, which decisively influenced my later life, and it continues to do so today. I learned early that we’re afraid only of things we don’t know. Human beings have a tendency to destroy everything that frightens them, even if they cannot begin to conceive of its worth. During my lonely journey back to civilization, I was often afraid, but never of the jungle. It wasn’t its fault that I landed in it. Nature is always the same, whether we’re there or not, it doesn’t matter to it. But we, this, too, I experienced firsthand during those eleven days, cannot survive without it.

All this is reason enough for me to devote my life to the preservation of this unique ecosystem. With Panguana, my parents left me an inheritance that I have accepted with all my heart. And today I’m taking their work there into a critical new phase: Panguana, larger than ever, is to be declared a nature reserve. Not only is this the fulfillment of my father’s dream, which he spent decades fighting for, but it is also a valuable contribution to the preservation of the Amazon Rain Forest. Not least of all, this can help prevent global climate catastrophe.

The rain forest is not only full of wonders, most of which we don’t even know yet, its preservation as the green lung of the earth is also crucial for the continued existence of an extremely young species on this planet: human beings.

The year 2011 is the fortieth anniversary of the 1971 airplane disaster. Over all these years, much has been written about my “accident,” as I call the crash. Countless newspaper pages have been filled with what people take to be “Juliane’s story.” From time to time there were good articles among them, but unfortunately also many that had little do with the truth. There was a time when the media attention almost overwhelmed me. To protect myself, I remained silent for years, rejected every interview and withdrew completely. But now the time has come to break my silence and tell how it really was. That’s why I am now sitting at the Munich Airport on packed suitcases to begin a journey that will be important to me for two reasons: to achieve the goal of establishing Panguana as a nature reserve, and to face my past. Past, present and future are thus meaningfully intertwined. What happened to me back then and the question of why I, of all people, was the only survivor spared in the LANSA disaster, now all this finally takes on a deeper meaning.

And then I’m sitting on the airplane. Yes, people wonder with amazement how I manage to get on airplanes time and again. I manage it with willpower and discipline. I manage it because I have to if I want to return to the rain forest. But it’s hard.

The airplane starts moving; we take off; we rise; we plunge deep into the dense cloud cover in the sky over Munich. I look out the window, and suddenly I see . . . those impenetrable black clouds and flashes of lightning. We’ve hit a heavy thunderstorm, and the pilot flies straight into the seething cauldron. The airplane turns into the plaything of the hurricane. Baggage and gifts wrapped for Christmas, flowers and toys fall down on us from overhead compartments. The airplane plunges directly into deep air pockets and then rises rapidly again. The people scream with fear. And suddenly there’s that blinding flash over the right wing of the airplane…

I take a deep breath. Above me the sign turns off; I can unfasten my seat belt. We’re just beyond Munich, and our airplane has reached its cruising altitude. After a layover in Madrid, my husband, Erich Diller, and I will board the plane to Lima. Then there are still twelve hours ahead of me, twelve hours of extreme tension about six miles above the ground. Over Portugal, we will leave the mainland behind and cross the Atlantic.

If I want to return to the country where I was born, I have no other choice. Even in the age of the low-budget flight, a trip around half the globe is no picnic. I’m entering not only another continent, but also another time zone, climate and season. When it’s spring at home, autumn is beginning in Peru. And even within Peru, I experience two different climate zones: the temperate one in Lima and the tropical one in the rain forest. But above all, each trip for me is a journey into the past. For in Peru, I came into the world; in Peru, I grew up; and in Peru, the event occurred that would change my life from the ground up, I was in a plane crash, survived by some miracle for several days completely on my own in the middle of the jungle and found my way back to other people. Back then, my life was given to me a second time. It was like a second birth. Only this time my mother lost her life.

My mother often told me how happy she was when she was pregnant with me. My parents conducted their intensive research together and loved their work more than anything. They had met as doctoral students in Kiel, and because it was difficult for passionate biologists to find a suitable position in postwar Germany, my father decided to immigrate to a country with a high, as yet unexplored, biodiversity. His then-fiancée, Maria von Mikulicz-Radecki, was excited about the plan and followed him after receiving her doctorate, which was unheard of at that time for an unmarried young woman. My grandfather was not at all pleased that my mother went on the long journey all by herself. But once she got something into her head, she could no longer be dissuaded from it. (Incidentally, my husband claims that I inherited that from her.)

In the cathedral of the Miraflores District in Lima, they were married soon after their arrival in the New World. My mother was disappointed that as a Catholic she was wed to my father, who was a Protestant, not on the main altar but in a small adjacent chapel. At that time interdenominational marriages were in the minority, and the Catholic priest tried hard to influence my mother to lead my father to the “true faith.” This insistence annoyed my mother so much that she stopped attending the Catholic service and also decided after my birth to baptize me as a Protestant.

At the time my parents got married, my mother still didn’t speak any Spanish, so she couldn’t follow the wedding ceremony. At one point it became strangely silent in the church, and then the priest said: “Senora, you have to say ‘Si’ now.”

And “si”, “yes”, both of them said from the bottom of their hearts. Not only to each other, but also to the kind of life they wanted to lead together. From their small apartment they soon moved into a larger house, which belonged to friends, and here I was born. Later they founded a few blocks away the “Humboldt House,” well known at the time in researcher circles, in which they sublet rooms to scientists passing through from all over the world. They divided their private area of the house simply with curtains. The Humboldt House in Miraflores would go down in history as the meeting place and base station of notable scientists.

Even though both of them were devoted to their work with heart and soul, I was absolutely a wanted child. My father was hoping for a girl, and when I entered the world in 1954, on a Sunday at seven o’clock in the evening, in the Clinica Delgado in the Miraflores District of Lima, his wish came true. I was born prematurely in the eighth month of my mother’s pregnancy and first had to go into the incubator. Perhaps it was a good omen that my parents decided to give me the name Juliane. It means “the cheerful one”, I find that the name suits me well.

At that time my father’s mother and his sister, Cordula, were also living with us in Peru. My grandmother wanted to spend a few years in the country to which two of her sons had immigrated. For after my father had settled down here, Joachim, his younger brother, decided in 1951 to build a life here too. He worked as an administrator on various large haciendas in the north of the country. One of them was even as large as Belgium. My parents visited Uncle Joachim several times there in Taulis, which was an exceptionally interesting area for them as zoologists. Because the Andes are relatively low there, at about 6,500 feet, an unusual flora and fauna exchange takes place between the east and west side of the mountain range, and my parents discovered some new animal species there. But completely unexpectedly, while my grandmother and aunt were making their departure plans in Germany, my uncle Joachim had a deadly accident in Taulis. Having just been perfectly healthy, he died within less than two hours from spasms. To this day it remains unresolved whether he fell victim to tetanus or might have been poisoned by opium farmers he was onto.

But his mother and sister had already severed all ties at home and now decided to come, anyway. So I had the good fortune of having not only my father and mother, but also my grandmother and aunt around during the first years of my childhood. The two of them remained in Peru for six years. My aunt worked for a time as the editor in chief of the Peruvian Post, a German newspaper in Lima. Then they returned to their native country, my aunt because of better professional opportunities and my grandmother for health reasons, and probably also because she was homesick for Germany.

I grew up with both languages, Spanish and German. The latter was spoken at home, and it was really important to my parents that I learned their mother tongue perfectly. By no means was that a given. Some of my schoolmates of German descent had only an imperfect mastery of the language of their ancestors. I spoke Spanish with my Peruvian friends, with our housemaid and later also in school. My parents had first really learned the language in Peru, and even though they were proficient in it, a few mistakes would always creep in. But Peruvians are polite people; when it was necessary to point out an error, they always did so as gently as possible.

One day, when I was already almost grown up, I realized that my father used the formal mode of address with me in Spanish. I told him: “You can’t do that. I’m your daughter!” But he became really embarrassed and confessed to me that he had never properly learned the informal mode. He was a very formal person, had few close friends and, thus, used the polite form of address without exception.

In Lima, I attended the German-Peruvian Alexander von Humboldt School. Instruction was mostly in German, but the military regime at the time placed value on subjects like history and regional geography being taught in Spanish. I remember my school days as very pleasant, even though my Peruvian schoolmates came from much better circles. No wonder, because you had to pay tuition, which the poorer families couldn’t afford. When you finished school, there was a mandatory trip, which in Peru was called the “Viaje de Promocién.” I took part in it, but there was to be no “Abitur,” as the German university entrance exam is called, for me. A German delegation would have come specifically to test us, but a flight over the Andes would change everything.

When I came home from school, I was always surrounded by animals. As an ornithologist, my mother was constantly bringing birds home that had been injured or shot and that we nursed back to health. For a while tinamous were her main object of study. This family of birds outwardly displays similarities with partridges, but is not otherwise related to them. They occur only in South and Central America. It is funny to compare their behavior with South American machismo. For among tinamous the females are in charge: They have several males at once, who have a lot of work to do. They build the nest, have to brood the eggs and raise the young, while the female defends the turf. That caused problems with the breeding: If a male wanted to leave the nest to eat something, the female would promptly chase it back onto the eggs. Incidentally, they were brown as chocolate and shiny as porcelain.

Sometimes we also raised hatched chicks. We fed them carefully with the dropper. They liked a mixture of hard-boiled egg, ground meat and vitamin formula best. My mother had a real knack for this: Not once did a chick she was raising die. I was responsible for naming the creatures. I came up with the wildest things: A large lizard I christened Krokodeckchen (a combination of the German “Krokodil” and “Eidechschen,” the diminutive for a lizard; in English, it might have been something like Crocolizzy), and my three tinamous I named Piups (an imitation of its call when it was frightened), Polsterchen (Little Pillow, because of its soft plumage, which I loved to pet and which it often ruffled) and Kastanienauglein (Little Chestnut Eye, because of its beautiful chestnut brown eyes).

These animals originally come from a magical landscape. It’s called Lomas de Lachay and is a fog desert area on the Pacific Coast. An extremely dry desert, the Atacama, runs through parts of Peru. Because out on the ocean, the cold Humboldt Current flows by, a dense fog cover forms, known as “garda,” which provides astonishingly lush vegetation at particular points where it meets the Andean slopes. In the middle of the desert, you thus encounter in those places vibrantly colorful islands of plants. My parents took me there with them a few times. This blooming oasis in the middle of the brown desert monotony appeared to me on each visit as a true wonder. And that’s where our tinamous came from.

A multicolored parrot named Tobias also lived with us, whom I called “Bio” even before I learned to speak. Bio had already been in the house before my birth and at first couldn’t stand me, because he was jealous. When as a small child I approached him, shouting “Bio, Bio,” full of excitement, he would peck at me, until he finally had to accept me. Tobias was a very smart parrot, who didn’t like it at all when his cage was soiled. When he had to go, he let out a certain sound. That was a sign for us to take Tobias out of the cage and bring him to the toilet. Yes, to the regular toilet for people! We held him above the bowl and, plop, he did his business. When Tobias one day suffered a heart attack, my mother cured him with Italian Cinzano. That revived his circulation, and is it any surprise: From that day on, he was a fan of this aperitif. Whenever guests came, Tobias waddled over and wanted to have his sip too.

In a letter to a friend in Germany, my mother wrote of my great enthusiasm for the jungle when she took me with her for the first time to the Rio Pachitea, which would later become so important for my life. At the time I was only five years old:

“She copes amazingly well with any situation, such as sleeping in a tent or in a sleeping bag on a rubber mattress, whether on the beach or on a boat. For her, these are all interesting things. And you have to imagine the atmosphere on the Rio Pachitea: the dim morning or evening with dense fog, the calls of the howler monkeys, the river silvery green, close to the boat the high wall of the dark jungle, from which the many-voiced concert of the crickets and cicadas sounds. You feel as if you’re really in primordial nature. Juliane was probably most excited about the blooming trees and the diversity and beautiful shapes of the leaves. She has already collected a herbarium . . .”

When I was nine years old, the Belgian animal catcher Charles Cordier visited us with his wife and his menagerie. Cordier was commissioned by famous zoological gardens all over the world to trap specimens of particular animal species. He had an extremely intelligent gray parrot named Kazuco, who could speak more outstandingly than I ever witnessed a parrot speak before or since. There was also the boxer Bocki and the owl Skadi, who was allowed to fly around the bathroom at night. Monsieur Cordier released mice for the owl to catch. Sometimes it also attacked Daddy’s shaving brush, because it looked so similar. Kazuco, the gray parrot from the Congo, greeted you in the morning with “Good morning” and in the evening with “Good evening.” I was extremely fascinated by the clever little guy, who could also say “Bocki, sit!” And the boxer would actually sit down. Kazuco picked up sounds and sentences incredibly quickly. During the days in the Humboldt House, he learned to say: “Lima has two million people.” I loved to stroke his magnificent gray-shaded plumage. Once he bit my finger hard, to this day I have a scar. Unfortunately, our Tobias died that same year of pneumonia.

I myself became seriously ill the next year, during summer vacation, of all times! I got scarlet fever, which really alarmed my parents, for my father’s youngest sister had died of that illness at the same age. I was always so small, thin and frail, and so the whole family heaved a sigh of relief when after several weeks I was back on my feet and could take care of my animals again.

. . .


When I fell from the sky. The True Story of One Woman’s Miraculous Survival

by Juliane Koepcke

get it at Amazon.com


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