Plane Crash

The Only One Who Lived

Sep 1, 2004
Outside Magazine

On Christmas Eve 1971, German teenager Juliane Koepcke sat next to her mother in the window seat of a Lockheed Electra. She had just graduated from high school in Lima, Peru, and was on her way to Pucallpa, where she and her mother would rendezvous with her father, biologist Hans Koepcke. But the plane never made it. The Electra hit a freak storm, and the 17-year-old girl looked out the window to see the right wing aflame. She turned to her mother, who said, "This is the end of everything." The last thing Juliane remembers is feeling herself whirling in midair.

She awoke three hours later, still strapped into her seat, in the Amazon. Miraculously, she had only fractured her collarbone, gashed her right arm, and lost vision in one eye. She began looking for her mother, but all she found were empty seats and a row of three young women, covered in flies. Of the 92 people on board, Koepcke was the lone survivor. Although in shock, she remembered her father's advice: Heading downhill in the jungle leads to water, and water leads to civilization. Koepcke bushwhacked along the rainforest floor, frequently hearing planes above, but she had no way to signal them. On the tenth day, she came across a hunter's hut, outfitted with salt and kerosene, which Koepcke used to clean worms out of her skin. The next day, a group of Peruvian hunters arrived. They took her to the town of Tournavista, where a local pilot flew her to her father, in Pucallpa.

"She was in the middle of the jungle," says Herb Golder, who in 1998 revisited Peru with Juliane—now 50 and a zoologist living in Germany—while working as assistant director on Wings of Hope, Werner Herzog's documentary about the ordeal. "And this 17-year-old girl in a torn miniskirt and one sandal walks out alive."