It was December, the holiday rush was starting to go in full swing. She was supposed to fly out earlier to visit her dad during the Christmas season but her school activities kept her from traveling. Her mother then decided that they’d fly on Christmas eve. Unfortunately, all flights were booked except for one—Lineas Aereas Nacionales Sociedad Anomina (or LANSA). But little did they know, this flight would change their lives forever.
Julianne Koepcke had always been into wildlife and nature. It was due to her parent’s strong influence that she also developed the same love and dedication for the matter. Her parents were Maria Wilhelm and Hans-Wilhelm, both of them were zoologist by profession. They worked for the Museum of Natural History in Peru.
Her childhood was a little different. Since both of her parents were zoologists, Julianne was exposed to research and science at an early age. She was only 14 years old when her parents decided to put up the Panguana Ecological Research Station located in the Amazon forests. To make things easier, her parents decided to homeschool Julianne instead of sending her to a regular school.
It was fun for Julianne. She was able to spend time with her parents while being able to learn about various wildlife facts about animals, insects and various survival techniques as well. Everything went well for two years, but unfortunately, educational authorities did not approve of Julianne’s unconventional learning techniques and she was forced to finish high school.
Julieanne was a very good student. She excelled in class and made lots of friends. She was able to finish high school without any trouble even though her parents weren’t around most of the time. In December of 1971, Julieanne’s mother, Maria, came back to the city to visit Julieanne and took her back to see her father during the holiday season.
Visiting her dad
Unfortunately, Julieanne was unable to go back sooner than her mother anticipated. She had a lot of stuff going on for her. There was a school dance that she didn’t want to miss and her graduation ceremony was coming up as well. Maria understood Julieanne’s concern and decided to hear her out. So the mother and daughter agreed to fly out on Christmas eve, but little did they know it wouldn’t be easy to book a flight home…
The effects of the peak season were starting to be evident and Maria was worried that they wouldn’t be able to come home just in time for Christmas. Maria tried her best to find airlines that would accommodate them but almost all the flights were booked that day, except for one.
After rigorously searching for an airline that could take them home for the holidays, Maria finally found one—the Lineas Aereas Nacionales Sociedad Anomina (LANSA). The airline didn’t exactly have a good reputation, they had a poor safety record and her husband, Hans, initially discouraged them to go. But Maria was desperate to celebrate Christmas with everyone, so she took the risk…
Just as they had planned, Maria and Julieanne boarded the plane on December 24. They departed from Lima’s Chávez International Airport and everything felt alright for the first half of the flight. Maria was expecting they would land safely in Iquitos, Peru but suddenly, something went terribly wrong.
Pressured by the holiday demand, the pilots of the LANSA domestic flight 508 did their best to push through with the flight despite the thunderstorm brewing. They flew right into the thunderstorm and faced the turbulence head-on which proved to be a really fatal mistake.
The passengers in the plane started to panic when they realized the danger they were in. The plane moved up and down and the turbulence made Maria and Julieanna feel dizzy and afraid. Suddenly, lightning struck through the plane’s fuel tank which created a massive hole in the plane. Julieanne was then held by her mother in her arms and she heard her whisper.
“That is the end, it’s all over.” The poor girl had no idea that those would be the last words her mother would speak to her.
The plane started to disintegrate two miles above the ground. Julieanne, scared to death, was strapped tightly in her seat as she felt her body spin. She eventually passed out and regained consciousness only to lose it again. And when she woke up, it was like seeing a nightmare come to life…
After passing out several times a few hours after her plane crashed, Julieanne finally woke up. She was wet, dirty, and alone. Trying to preserve her energy, Julieanne tried to stay inside the plane for a few hours and rest. After around 19 hours of resting, she realized that she needed to do something in order to help herself survive.
Since her parents educated her well, Julieanne did her best to apply the survival tips her parents taught her when she was homeschooled. She tried to examine herself. She determined how her neck, shoulders, and back were severely hurt. Her right eye was also swollen shut and she had a large gash on her arm. She also realized that she lost her glasses, which was essential for her since she was near-sighted.
Getting through the first day
Julieanne checked her watch, it was 9 in the morning. She glanced on her mother’s seat but she was nowhere to be found. She crawled around the crash site on all fours and tried to call for her mother. In order to avoid getting confused, she also marked the trees around her.
After hours of trying to find another survivor, Julieanne decided to give up as all she heard was silence and the echoes of her own voice.
Desperate to survive, Julieanne then forced herself to stand. She felt unstable at first but she gradually grew steady. When she got thirsty, she drank the raindrops from the leaves around her. She also found a bag of candy around the site and decided to save most of it for later. Through the silence, she heard the planes flying above her. ‘They must be searching for us,’ she thought to herself. Julieanne then decided to pick up her pace, hoping to be noticed by the rescuers.
Surviving in the forest
Afraid but determined, Julieanne walked inside the vast rainforest. She applied what her parents taught her about surviving such conditions. She threw her shoe in front of her to see if there were any snakes or predators camouflaging themselves on the ground before walking. She also had to trek her way through uneven terrain and climbed and squeezed herself in order to get through.
Soon after trekking, Julieanne found a small creek. She was relieved. Her parents taught her that following a stream of water may lead her to a civilization of people.
With nothing but a bag of candy as her source of food, Julieanne followed the river in hopes that she may find other people there. As she walked through the dense rainforest, she heard the cries of a king vulture. ‘There must be dead bodies around,’ she thought to herself. And she was right.
She was greeted with the sight of rows of seats with three dead people still strapped inside. It was a horrific thing to witness. Worried that one of them might be her mother, she inspected the lady’s toes. They were painted. Julieanne was a bit relieved that the corpse was not her mother’s and she was hopeful that she might still be alive. Julieanne marched forward.
As Julieanne finally reached the end of the stream, it seemed there were no signs of people anywhere. Her watched stopped working days ago and she’s not sure how many days had passed since the crash. The candy she was carefully preserving had run out as well. Julieanne was hungry, exhausted, and disappointed with herself.
Julieanne often fantasized about food and started hallucinating as well. But she never stopped moving forward. She walked, swam, and trekked as far as she could in order to find her rescuers.
Julieanne went up a steep hill that led her to a tiny hut. It took her hours to climb up but she was just happy to see that there was shelter. The hut had gasoline inside, she used it to clean her infected wounds as she saw her father do it once before. She then took shelter inside.
After staying in the hut for several days, Julieanne heard voices. She thought it was just her imagination but to her surprise, three lumberjacks saw her. Julieanne explained what happened and they treated her wounds and fed her food.
The next morning, Julieanne rode a canoe and the three lumberjacks brought her to a lumber station. It took around seven hours but Julieanne was more than happy to be helped by kind people. A pilot then flew her to a hospital in Pulcapa and her wounds were finally treated properly.
Her father visited her the day after she was confined in the hospital. Their emotional reunion brought both of them to tears.
Surviving for several days in a rainforest alone is not easy, that is why people all over the world decided to give Julieanne the title “miracle girl.” A total of 91 people died from the crash. Thanks to Julieanne’s directions and good memory, search parties were able to locate the plane as well.