Juliane Koepcke was only 17 when her plane was struck by lightning and she became the sole survivor. Falling from the sky into the jungle below, she recounts her 11 days of struggle and the years that followed for the first time in her new book. Here's an excerpt.
The flight from Lima to Pucallpa takes only about an hour. On December 24, 1971, the first thirty minutes go — just like today — perfectly normally. Our fellow passengers are in high spirits. Everyone is excited to celebrate Christmas at home. After about twenty minutes, we’re served a small breakfast of a sandwich and a drink, just as we are today. Ten minutes later the stewardesses already begin to clean up. And 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 incessantly 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 open 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 pour on heads and shoulders. The people are frightened; they scream and start to cry.
“Hopefully, this goes all right,” my mother says. I can feel her nervousness, while I myself am still pretty calm. Yes, I begin to worry, but I simply can’t imagine that . . .
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; while at the same time, 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.
Alone. At an altitude of about ten thousand feet, I’m alone. And I’m falling.
In contrast to the noise just a moment ago, the sounds of my free fall are downright quiet. I hear the rushing of the air, which fills my ears. Today I’m not certain whether I remained conscious without interruption, probably not. Presumably, the nosedive in the plane lasted much longer — according to technical calculations, even ten minutes. Only after a few weeks am I able to remember it at all. First I experience it in my nightmares, until the memory returns. And to this day, I still don’t know how I could suddenly be outside the airplane.
In his text “Wings of Hope” in the book Voyages into Hell, Werner Herzog wrote, . . . she did not leave the airplane, the airplane left her, and that captures it exactly. I hung strapped into the seat, and around me was nothing. There has been much speculation about what exactly happened. Most likely, the airplane simply broke into many pieces after the lightning struck. We probably sat at one of the breaking points, and invisible forces hurled me out in the seat, into the middle of the raging elements. How exactly that happened, and what happened to my mother, I will never learn.
But I remember falling. I’m falling, and the seat belt squeezes my belly so tight that it hurts and I can’t breathe. At that moment it becomes crystal clear to me what is happening. In my ears is the roar of the air, through which I’m moving downward. Before I can even feel fear, I lose consciousness again. The next thing I remember is hanging upside down while the jungle comes toward me with slowly spinning movements. No, it’s not coming toward me; I’m falling toward it. The treetops, green as grass, densely packed, remind me of heads of broccoli. The images are blurred. I see everything as if through a fog. Then deep night surrounds me again.
I dream. . . .
It’s always the same dream. Actually, it’s two, which are interwoven; as in a kaleidoscope, I shift in my sleep from one into the other. In the first of these dreams, I’m racing furiously at a low height through a dark space, incessantly racing along the wall without hitting it. There’s a roaring, humming sound in my ears, as if I myself were equipped with an engine. In the second dream I have the urgent need to wash myself because I feel completely filthy. I feel like my whole body is sticky and covered with mud, and I desperately have to bathe. And then I think in my dream: But that’s easy. All you have to do is get up. Just get up and go to the bathtub. It’s not that far. And at the moment I make the decision to get up in the dream, I wake up. I realize that I’m underneath my seat. My seat belt is unfastened, so I must have already been awake at some point. I’ve also apparently crawled still deeper under the sheltering back of the three-seat bench. 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.
I open my eyes, and it’s immediately clear to me what has happened: I was in a plane crash and am now in the middle of the jungle. I will never forget the image I saw when I opened my eyes: the crowns of the jungle giants suffused with golden light, which makes everything green glow in many shades. This sight will remain burned into my memory for all time, like a painting. Those first impressions already show me a forest like the one I know from Panguana. I don’t feel fear, but a boundless feeling of abandonment. And with excessive clarity I become aware that I’m alone. My mother, who was just sitting next to me, is gone. Her seat is empty. There’s also no trace of the heavy man who fell asleep immediately after takeoff.
I try to stand up, but I can’t. Everything immediately goes black before my eyes. I probably have a severe concussion. I feel helpless and utterly alone.
Reprinted from "When I Fell Frm the Sky" by Juliane Koepcke © 2011 by Juliane Koepcke. Used with permission of the publisher, Title Town Publishing, LLC.