Lone survivor: Girl survives plan crash in Amazon jungle

Although air travel is statistically one of the safest means of transportation, many people are nervous about getting on a plane. In some ways this is understandable because when accidents do happen the number of fatalities is quite high. One crash can take many lives in an instant.

That's why in 1971 when an airplane with 92 passengers disappeared while flying over the Amazon River after being struck by lightning, police determined that there were no survivors after an intensive 10-day search. So when a young girl came wandering out of the jungle shortly after the search was called off, they could hardly believe their eyes.

Juliane Koepcke was born in Peru but her parents were German. Her father was a zoologist and her mother an ornithologist. Both worked in the Amazon jungle, so Juliane grew up in an environment quite different from that of most other children her age. When she was 17, she and her mother (you can see the two of them in the photo above) boarded a flight to Germany. It was Christmas Day 1971.

The plane took off in the middle of a storm and shortly after takeoff it was struck by lightning. Juliane recalls: "After about 10 minutes I saw a very bright light in the left engine outside. My mother very calmly said, 'This is the end, everything is over.' Those were the last words I heard from her."

The plane broke apart two miles above of the earth. Juliane plummeted to the ground, still strapped into her seat. Miraculously she survived — the seat and the lush vegetation cushioned the fall. Though she was knocked unconscious on impact, she only suffered a broken collarbone and a very swollen eye.

When she came to, she wandered off in search of help. Years of living in the jungle with her parents helped: she knew which plants were edible and which were not, and how to avoid dangerous wild animals such as piranhas in streams.

The first thing she did was look for her mother who had been sitting beside her on the plane. She never managed to find her, but on the fourth day she did find the wreckage of the plane and many lifeless bodies. "I was paralyzed with fear," she recalls. "It was the first time I saw a body without life." It was a horrible experience for her, but at least she found a large bag of candy that served as a source of nourishment.

Juliane continued looking for help for days. She could barely see through her swollen eye and her wounds had become infected and were full of worms. Yet despite all of this she refused to give up and her determination finally paid off.

Ten days after the crash Juliane was awakened by the sound of voices. After a quick look around she saw some forestry workers and approached them cautiously. The poor girl was so disheveled and emaciated that the workers first thought she was a ghost from an old folk legend. When she explained that she was a survivor of the accident, the men helped her and took her seven hours by boat to the nearest town.

Juliane's father met her at the hospital. They were overjoyed to see each other, but her father had some terrible news: her mother had survived the crash but died of her injuries a few days later.

Now, 46 years later, Juliane is following in her parent's footsteps and working as a biologist in Peru. It took her many years to recover from the traumatic experience of the crash that took 91 lives, including her mother's. There are several books and films based on her story, but she is the only one who can tell it from a firsthand perspective. And it's a story that shows just how powerful the will to live can be.

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