Falling out of the sky: the perfect 2020 Christmas Story

Juliane Koepcke in 2019. 

Some of you may not know the story of Juliane Koepcke, a German-Peruvian mammalogist who on Christmas Eve 1971, fell 3.2 km out of the sky - and survived, only to wake up alone, still strapped to her airline seat in the Amazon rainforest where she would spend the next eleven days trying to find civilization. 

I only found out about this recently and I think the story rings a certain harmonic note with 2020.  

A day after her High School graduation in Lima, Koepcke and her mother, Maria were desperate to spend Christmas with her father, Hans-Wilhlellm, at Panguana - a biological research station and private conservation area extending over 10 square kilometres of forest where he lived and worked.

Many of the flights that night were booked as Peruvians (a mainly Roman Catholic nationhood) traveled home for the holidays. But Juilane and her mother managed to find some seats on a Lineas AĆ©reas Nacionales S.A. (LANSA) flight.

The airline had a poor reputation and had already lost two aircraft in previous crashes. Her father didnt want them to take the flight. Nonetheless, the pair boarded a Lockheed L-188 Electra plane and bid the ground goodbye. 

The next time Koepcke would touch the earth, it would knock her out of consciousness for several hours. 

During the short flight over the jungle, the gas tank of LANSA Flight 508 was struck by lightning. 

“Presents were flying around the cabin and people were screaming,” Koepcke told CNN in 2009, recounting the worst Christmas of her life. 

The plane broke apart at over 10,000 in the air. She and a whole row of seats were sent hurtling towards the earth. 

“Suddenly there was an amazing silence. The plane was gone. I must have been unconscious and then came to in midair. I was flying, spinning through the air and I could see the forest spinning beneath me.”

Many, including herself, have struggled to imagine how it was that she was able to survive the fall. 

One theory is that updraft from the thunderstorm may have had a contributing factor. 

She describes spinning like a helicopter on her descent and posits that perhaps, the row of seating acted somewhat like helicopter would, minimizing the impact when she hit the ground. 

“Also the place where I landed very thick Foliage and that might have lessened the impact,” she said in the CNN interview. 

She remembers nothing of the impact but suffered a broken collar bone, ruptured ligaments in her knee, a concussion and gashes on her arms and legs.  She figures she was passed out for a long while before snapping out of it. When she did it was just her and her row of seats. 

Her first priority was to find her mother. But that search proved unsuccessful. 

Maria, it was discovered later, had also survived the initial impact but had died from her injuries days later. 

Realizing she needed help, Juliane trekked through the rainforest. It was an environment she knew how to survive because of time spent with her father around the forests of Panguana.

“It’s not the green hell that the world always thinks,” she would say to the BBC later about being in the Amazon.

She had lost her glasses and one shoe. So she kept the shoe that remained and used it to test the ground ahead of her for snakes. 

The only food she had was some candy that she found near the crash site.  Her wounds quickly became infested with parasites. She later had 50 maggots removed from one wound.

Remembering her Dad’s advice, she found a creek and began walking in it because it was safer. 

“He said if you find a creek, follow it because that will lead to a stream and a stream will lead to a bigger river and that’s where you’ll find help.”

Koepcke discovered more wreckage along the way, including another row of seats with three women, all dead, still strapped in. 

They had fallen head first and their heads were buried in the ground. She grabbed a stick because she didn't want to touch the bodies, but she did want to explore for clues that any of the deceased may be her mother. She found none.

After 10 days, she found a small boat and a hut along the river and stayed there until the next day when a group of lumberjacks found her and brought her to the next town. 

In Peru, she is known simply as “Miracle Girl.” 

Koepcke, upon her discovery by Peruvian lumberjacks. 

I don’t know what it is, but planes and Christmas Eve seem to combine well to make for some great stories. 

For example, Frederick Forsyth’s The Shepherd. A classic, haunting tale of a Royal Air Force pilot heading home from Germany in 1957 for Christmas.

When his plane begins to experience trouble, he is guided by an unknown pilot to a decommissioned airfield for a safe landing, where the reality of what had just happened really starts to come down on him. 

A lasting tradition in my family is listening to this story, usually apart and on our own time. 

Just like we all are this Christmas. 

Although The Shepherd plays into the fictional and spiritual realms, it’s Keopcke’s harrowing real-life tale that now stands out to me as one to also be revisited every year.

Not to be crass or reductionist, but it might be the perfect 2020 Christmas Story. 

A year ago we were happily going about our Christmas business not knowing that come the Spring, normalcy would be shockingly altered from an experience that we will remember for the rest of our lives. 

The kind of resilience and adversity in Koepke’s story, thankfully, hasn’t been necessary or present for many of us although there have been minor inconveniences throughout the year. 

Hearing her story now as most of us celebrate a rather different Christmas than we’ve ever imagined - a one of a kind Christmas, really - reminds us that, as hard as it is to not be able to spend time with our family and friends in a way that we’re familiar with, it could be a lot worse. 

Mike Carter, Yeg City 

Dec. 25, 2020



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