On Christmas Eve 1971, half an hour after take-off from Lima airport, Peru, a passenger plane bound for Pucallpa in the Amazon rainforest flew into a thunderstorm.
The plane started lurching and bumping in the air. Then, in a single, catastrophic moment, a bolt of lightning hit one of the fuel tanks and tore the right wing off. Lansa Flight 508 went into a nosedive and all 92 of its passengers and crew were killed, except for one.
One minute Juliane Koepcke, 17, was sitting in the window seat next to her mother; the next she was falling through the air, still strapped to her seat, and her mother had vanished. The filmmaker Werner Herzog, who some 30 years later was to make a documentary about Koepcke’s extraordinary survival, said, 'She did not leave the airplane, the airplane left her.’
Koepcke remembers falling head first with the seatbelt digging into her stomach and a canopy of trees spiralling towards her. Then she lost consciousness. She came to the next morning on the floor of the rainforest.
She had somehow managed to drop two miles through the air and not only survive but walk away with apparently nothing more than concussion, a broken collarbone, a gash on her leg and a small cut on her arm.
But falling from the sky was only the beginning of her troubles. The forest that had saved her life became her prison. She was now lost in deep uninhabited jungle with danger behind every bush.
There were jaguars, scorpions and poisonous snakes camouflaged as leaves, which she couldn’t see because she had lost her glasses. Equally unsettling were the rivers with piranhas and alligators. And December in the rainforest is wet. By day Koepcke was dotted with the black outlines of a hundred bugs. By night she was lashed with ice-cold rain.
Koepcke didn’t have any tools for survival such as a machete or plastic boots. She was just a girl in a thin cotton minidress with a broken zip and one white sandal (the other was lost in the crash and she decided that one was better than none), with nothing to sustain her but a bag of boiled sweets (which ran out on day four) and a simple belief that she had to keep going. But 10 days after the plane crashed, on January 3 1972, Koepcke was found by three forest workers.
Her story gripped the world. There was something powerfully life-affirming in its cocktail of luck, bravery and the invincibility of the human spirit. That same month, the first interview appeared in her native country, Germany, in Stern magazine.
Then media coverage exploded. One journalist was so desperate to get an interview she pretended to be a nurse. Koepcke was being talked about and written about all over the globe.
At first she obliged, even collaborating with the makers of the 1974 film Miracles Still Happen, in which Susan Penhaligon starred as Juliane. But after a year or so the attention overwhelmed her. 'I thought, it’s like dogs hunting me,’ she told me. She brushed journalists away, and effectively disappeared for four decades. Until now. When I Fell from the Sky, her memoir of the crash, was published in Germany last year, and will be released in Britain in March.
We meet in her office at the State Collection of Zoology in Munich, where Juliane Koepcke is the head librarian and deputy director. She is neat and professional in enamel beads and traditional librarian glasses, and is even smaller now than she was at the time of the crash, having lost an inch to age.
At 57 she is not as skinny as she was, but she still has the same startling fair skin (so badly sunburnt in the jungle) and gentle desire for precision. What upset her most about the journalists was the way they kept getting facts wrong, writing that she built a raft (impossible), and that the cut in her arm got infested with worms (it was maggots). She still takes a dim view of the panettone she is supposed to have taken from the crash site (the plane was filled with Christmas gifts) and eaten on her journey. 'It was mush! Soggy. Not possible to eat.’
Koepcke wanted to withdraw completely after the crash, and her office is so tucked away that you can’t even hear the busy road to Stuttgart outside. She is still surrounded by wildlife – but now it’s vivid plastic. A garland of birds hangs from the ceiling over her desk: macaw, cockatoo, budgerigar, hummingbird. Pictures of toucans decorate coffee cups and A4 files. They are all birthday and Christmas presents from her colleagues – a homage to her mother, Maria, a leading ornithologist – and their volume is evidence of the decades she has worked here. Koepcke was recruited part-time in the mid-1980s while studying for a PhD on bats at the University of Munich, and has stayed ever since. She even met her husband here; they married in 1989. Erich Diller, now 74, an expert on parasitic wasps, works upstairs.
At first glance Koepcke seems ultra-normal. You could spend hours talking to her without thinking her anything other than an intelligent, pleasant, charming woman. And yet, it becomes clear, the trauma of the crash goes very deep.
For years she had the same dream: 'I’m racing furiously at a low height through a dark space, incessantly racing along a wall without hitting it. There’s a roaring, humming sound in my ears as if I myself were equipped with an engine, which is a very strange feeling, and then I wake up covered with sweat.’ She says she wasn’t offered any therapy – counselling wasn’t widespread in those days: 'I was left alone with my problems.’ Not being an especially demonstrative person, she bottled up her emotions.
It took 10 years for the full force of her mother’s death to sink in. 'I had an awful time,’ she says.
'I cried for hours and hours, all day long, almost without end, and thought of my mother and all the things and important subjects I didn’t discuss with her.’ She thinks she is still suffering from shock to this day. 'It’s a mechanism that allows us to live with a monstrous experience.’
The closest she had to a counsellor was Werner Herzog. As fate would have it, he had tried but failed to book a seat on that same flight to Pucallpa to get to the jungle to shoot scenes for his film Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972). In 1998 Herzog contacted Koepcke and offered to take her back to the crash site as part of his documentary about her, Wings of Hope (2000). 'He helped me towards working through my past,’ she observes. 'His empathetic questions and his ability to truly listen, as well as the chance to return to the site of my terror, were the best therapy.’
And now, finally, she is ready to tell her story. 'I am making peace with my own past,’ she says.
Juliane was born in 1954, the only child of two eminent German zoologists, Hans-Wilhelm and Maria Koepcke, who worked at the Javier Prado Museum of Natural History in Lima. She had what she describes as a 'lucky’ upbringing, with an emphasis on animals. 'My first pet was Tobias, a parrot,’ she says. 'He was already there when I was born and he was very jealous.’ She was mired in nature from an early age. 'She [Juliane] has already collected a herbarium,’ wrote her mother in a letter to a friend in Germany when Juliane was five.
Juliane was very close to her mother; her father, 10 years his wife’s senior, was more distant. In many ways her parents were polar opposites: he was dark, irascible, emotionally awkward; she was blond, gentle, compassionate. But they shared one passion: a love of nature. And this united them, made their connection extraordinary, like a fairy tale.
'They had a symbiotic co-existence,’ Koepcke says. 'It was very unusual.’ Not only did her parents work feverishly together on scientific publications, but 'when they were invited to dinner and couples were mixed up, my parents insisted on sitting together,’ Koepcke recalls. 'It was not possible for them to be separated.’
She says she was very much a 'wanted child’ but there was no space for another. So although their home was busy – it was a renowned meeting place for visiting scientists – Koepcke sometimes felt lonely. 'Work was so important to my parents,’ she says. 'They left me alone because they worked late in the evening and this is also why I didn’t have children. I am very occupied with my work and I wouldn’t have enough time to care for a child in the way it needs.’
In 1968 her parents decided to move from Lima to the middle of the Amazon rainforest, where they set up Panguana, a research station on stilts, named after a native bird. Aged 14, Koepcke became a 'jungle child’.
Outside was a tangle of vines and trees, birds and howler monkeys. Inside were her parents’ books, no running water, and the routine of shaking out rubber boots every morning to remove poisonous spiders. For her parents it was 'heaven on earth’. And she grew to love it, too. Koepcke lived here for 18 months, home-schooled by her parents.
'I had a very strict programme. My father taught me maths and then every morning I went with my parents into the forest.’ This is when she learnt the lessons that would save her life: always pick your feet up from the ground to avoid tripping over a root; if you’ve lost your way, follow a flow of water and you will find your way out.
But the educational authorities didn’t approve and in March 1970 Koepcke had to return to the German-Peruvian Alexander von Humboldt School in Lima to take her exams. She passed. And on December 23 1971, she graduated.
Koepcke has spent quite a bit of the past four decades going over just why she was so adamant about going to the ceremony to collect her diploma. But she can’t make the outcome any different. Her mother, who was working in Lima, wanted to fly back to Panguana on December 19 or 20. 'But on December 22 we had a very important event for a teenager, the graduation ball,’ Koepcke says.
For weeks she saved up money to buy her first long dress: blue, puffy-sleeved, a little bit low-cut. This was her big chance to wear it. 'I begged my mother. Of course she understood.’
They agreed to fly home on Christmas Eve. But all the flights were fully booked – except for one with the airline Lansa. Her mother booked two seats on the plane. In moments of guilt Koepcke returns to the memory of her mother saying, 'I think it will be OK.’
'Lansa had a very bad reputation,’ she explains, 'My father had said to my mother, “Please don’t fly with Lansa. Any other airline but not Lansa.” Its reputation was based on the type of planes in Lansa’s fleet: the L-188 Electra, an American turboprop built by Lockheed, had been blighted by problems since its launch in 1957. (Over the next 50 years, 58 out of 170 Electras would be written off because of crashes and other accidents.) The year before the doomed Flight 508, Lansa Flight 502 had crashed shortly after take-off from Cuzco, killing 99 of the 100 people on board.
At 11am on December 24 their flight was called and Koepcke sat two rows from the back, next to the window. Her mother was in the middle seat and a heavy-set man in the aisle. 'We were only 15 minutes from landing,’ Koepcke recalls, 'and suddenly it went very dark as we entered the storm. The turbulence was terrible. Parcels, jackets, bags fell from the overhead lockers, Christmas cakes and gifts. People began to cry and panic. Then I saw a blinding white light over the right wing.’
In that instant her mother knew what was in store. 'She said very calmly, “Now it’s all over.”
'The plane made a nose-dive and I could see the cockpit and there was terrible crying from the people and the very deep roaring of the engines – not a normal sound, much louder – and then suddenly it was all over. The noise was gone. I was outside the plane and it was completely quiet.’
Koepcke has often wondered why she didn’t drop like a stone through the sky like the others. In the jungle after the crash she found the remains of a bank of three seats, like the one she and her mother were sitting in, although this one was rammed head first about three feet into the soil. 'The heads of the passengers – two men and a woman – were stuck there in the rainforest floor.’
She has four theories about how she survived the fall: first, that the powerful updraught from the thunderstorm slowed her plunge; secondly, that the three-seat bench worked like the wing of a maple seed spinning as it fell (this is Herzog’s explanation); thirdly, that the trees where she fell were particularly dense and knitted together; and lastly, that she hit the trees with the seat below her, and fell through the branches 'as in a boat’ to land relatively gently on the rainforest floor.
So this was luck, and more luck was to follow. Koepcke had landed about 30 miles from Panguana, and she was attuned to the forest here – the animals, bugs and general feel. 'I felt no fear because it was the same environment I knew from home,’ she says.
She knew instantly that it was important to get out to find help because this was an uninhabited area. She found a stream, as her father told her (in the belief that it would lead to a larger river and people).
She knew that piranhas are only dangerous in shallow water, so she floated mid-stream; she knew that much of what grew was poisonous, but the water from the creeks was safe.
'There isn’t much danger of dysentery in uninhabited forest.’ And she knew exactly what to do when she heard the call of hoatzins, because didn’t her mother tell her about these birds? 'You only find hoatzins near larger rivers, open water,’ she says. But the sound was not coming from where she was heading. So she left 'her’ creek, which felt wildly counterintuitive, and followed the birdcall through dense thickets until she came out into the open and saw the river. 'I was very proud of myself.’
She was lucky not to step on a stingray; or to get attacked by an alligator; or to catch the poison arrow frog she was so desperate to eat – the poison is normally too weak to kill, but in her state it could have been fatal. What’s more, the men who found her only visited their logging camp very rarely. It was pure chance that they came that day.
Do you feel lucky, I ask. 'Sometimes I feel unlucky that I have to carry this heavy weight because it is a heavy weight for the psyche,’ she replies. 'It’s always there, like a visitor that entered my life and although I reject him, he is there. I cannot push him away. But I am healthy and I can do work that I love and this is only possible because I survived – so I am lucky too.’
By March 1972 Koepcke had recovered and was back at school in Lima. Her plan was to study for two years for the German university entrance exam. She loved school and was happy to be back with her friends. But this is when she had another traumatic change. She continued to be besieged by journalists and her father had a panic attack and sent her to Germany to live with his mother and sister Cordula, a journalist and writer. On top of everything else, Koepcke had lost her home.
'I was very angry,’ she says. 'Panguana and my school were the only things left for me. It took about two years to accept it. But fortunately I had a very nice school in Kiel in northern Germany and very nice friends. But with my father it was very difficult.’ (She was eventually reconciled with him after he moved back to Germany in 1974.)
Her feeling of abandonment was to return some 40 years later in 2010, while she was researching her book. Her aunt died that year and while leafing through her papers Koepcke found a letter from her father.
'I am dismayed that Juliane wants to come back here already,’ the letter read. This was Christmas 1972. He wanted his sister to know that Juliane was forbidden from returning to Panguana. Juliane burst into tears as she read it. 'I always suspected that for him it was a problem that I survived and not my mother,’ she explains. 'But then I understood. He was paralysed with grief. That Christmas was the first anniversary of her death. He was completely alone in Panguana, alone with his grief, and the last thing he wanted to see in those moments was me because I looked a lot like my mother and that was a problem for him.’
She says her father never recovered. 'His life was finished.’ He left Lima three years after the crash without even saying goodbye to his colleagues at the museum, and began a new life in Hamburg. But the inner turmoil didn’t go away. 'He lived like a machine,’ Koepcke says. He never returned to Peru and died in 2000, aged 87. 'After he died I found a small candle and it was named the Panguana candle and every year on Christmas Eve – the official anniversary of my mother’s death – he put the candle by his bedside and lit it.’
Koepcke also discovered something else from her father’s letters. 'My mother wasn’t dead when she fell from the plane,’ she reveals. 'My father thought she’d survived for nearly two weeks – perhaps up to January 6, because when he went to identify her body it wasn’t as decomposed as you’d expect in that environment – it’s very warm and humid and there are lots of animals that would eat dead bodies. He thought she’d broken her backbone or her pelvis and couldn’t move.’
Koepcke pauses. 'My husband says, “Don’t think about it. You cannot change it.” But it bothers me very much. I think, what must it have been like for her in those last days there?’
Juliane Koepcke returned to Panguana in 1981 to study bats for her PhD (her father’s suggestion: Panguana had an abundance of vampire bats – one even bit her big toe while she was sleeping as a child). She spent 18 months in her old home and identified 52 bat species. But it was ultimately the trip back to the crash site with Herzog that prompted her to take responsibility for her parents’ legacy. 'It became clear to me that the time had come for me to assume responsibility for the research station and the inhabitants.’
She is still devoted to Panguana, which is poised to become a nature reserve. She has expanded its size from 460 to 1,730 acres and is due to sign the papers to make the conservation plans legal next month. 'I’m now trying to save the rainforest that saved my life,’ she says. She and Erich visit twice a year. Which, of course, means flying. 'Long flights are difficult,’ she admits. 'I get so tense that even sleeping pills don’t work.’ Then she adds, engagingly, 'Red wine is always good. And a whisky.’
But still she worries that she is not doing enough. 'In the lonely nights I passed in the forest I said to myself, if I survive this, I will make something important for humanity and nature. Those are great words, but only words and up to now I have been thinking, have I achieved this or not? And that is another way of feeling guilty.’
Writing the book brought up memories she didn’t want to remember. 'But it has been a kind of finishing,’ she says. 'Something was not done and I was always looking and searching – for what I don’t know.’ She smiles her shy smile. 'But now I feel better. It was an important book to write.’