Survival Stories: The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

When she was 17, Juliane Koepcke dropped 10,000 feet into the Amazon rain forest. She describes how she survived—alone.

from the book "When I Fell from the Sky"

By day, I go on swimming, but I’m getting weaker. I drink a lot of river water, which fills my stomach, but I know I should eat something.

One morning, I feel a sharp pain in my upper back. When I touch it, my hand comes away bloody. The sun has burned my skin as I swim. I will learn later that I have second-degree burns.

As the days wear on, my eyes and ears fool me. Often I’m convinced I see the roof of a house on the riverbank or hear chickens clucking. I am so horribly tired.

I fantasize about food, from elaborate feasts to simple meals. Each morning it gets harder to stand up and get into the cold water. Is there any sense in going on? Yes, I tell myself. I have to keep going.

I spend the tenth day drifting in the water. I’m constantly bumping into logs, and it requires a great deal of strength to climb over them and not break any bones in these collisions. In the evening, I find a gravel bank that looks like a good place to sleep. I doze off for a few minutes. When I wake up, I see something that doesn’t belong here: a boat. I rub my eyes, look three times, and it’s still there. A boat!

I swim over and touch it. Only then can I really believe it. I notice a beaten trail leading up the bank from the river. I’m sure I’ll find people there, but I’m so weak that it takes me hours to make it up the hill.

When I get to the top, I see a small shelter, but no people. A path leads from the shack into the forest. I’m certain that the owner of the boat will emerge at any moment, but no one comes. It gets dark, and I spend the night there.

The next morning, I wake and still no one has shown up. It begins to rain, and I crawl into the shelter and wrap a tarp around my shoulders.

The rain stops in the afternoon. I no longer have the strength to struggle to my feet. I tell myself that I’ll rest at the hut one more day, then keep moving.

At twilight I hear voices. I’m imagining them, I think. But the voices get closer. When three men come out of the forest and see me, they stop in shock.

“I’m a girl who was in the LANSA crash,” I say in Spanish. “My name is Juliane.”

Forestry workers discovered Juliane Koepcke on January 3, 1972, after she’d survived 11 days in the rain forest, and delivered her to safety. Ninety-one people, including Juliane’s mother, died in the crash of LANSA Flight 508. Juliane was the sole survivor. Now a biologist and librarian at the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology, Juliane returns to Panguana often, where the research station she inherited continues to welcome scientists from all over the world.

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