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I fell 3000m in a plane crash and survived

I fell 3000m in a plane crash and survived

Juliane Koepcke visits the site of the plane crash that nearly claimed her life.

Juliane Koepcke remembers her fall from the sky as if it were a fragment of a dream. There is a whooshing in her ears, a sensation of spinning, and finally a glimpse of what looks like a giant bunch of broccoli hurtling towards her. Then everything is dark and silent. Except for the insects and the bats and the snakes.

High above the Peruvian jungle, the aircraft Juliane was travelling in had broken up in a violent electrical storm. Still strapped into a row of seats, she had fallen more than three kilometres.

Looking around at the strange, glistening fauna of the forest floor, she felt less a sense of terror than bewilderment. The most bewildering thing of all was that she was still alive.

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“That was the first big shock,” she says. “I couldn’t actually move, but at least I knew I wasn’t dead. I understood what had happened, that I’d fallen from the plane, but it made no sense.

“How could I be alive? Then I felt the quiet, and although I wasn’t afraid, exactly, I had this terrible feeling of having been abandoned.”

More than 40 years after what was hailed around the world as the ultimate story of human survival, Juliane, a talkative, well-groomed blonde, is making a soft landing on a London hotel sofa.

She still has a touch of knee-pain, occasional neck twinges, and finds it easier to sleep with an orthopaedic pillow, but at 57 appears to be remarkably intact.

What hurts most, she says, is that over the years her story has been embellished and re-worked by others to the point where much of the truth has been lost.

“I was a naive teenager when it happened,” she tells me. “I didn’t know much about the world, I was overwhelmed by all the attention and I let other people speak for me.”

Now Juliane has written her own account of the Peruvian plane crash and her subsequent — equally remarkable — escape from the jungle.

“As much as anything,” she says, “I wanted to make sense of it all, and the things that happened afterwards. It had a very deep effect on me that went beyond all the focus on how I survived.”

One of the unhappy consequences of her survival was the painful estrangement it caused between Juliane and her father, Hans-Wilhelm, a brilliant, but emotionally austere German bio-scientist.

Juliane’s mother, Maria, died in the crash, and Hans-Wilhelm struggled to come to terms with the fact that while his 17-year-old daughter returned home a global celebrity, his wife’s remains lay rotting in the jungle.

“For a long time he did not want to see me,” says Juliane. “He was paralysed by grief and I think some sense of guilt, and it was very difficult for him to accept that his wife had died and I was alive.

“Mummy and I looked a lot like each other, and I think every time he saw me it reminded him too much of her. So he sent me away, and it was a long time before we could talk to each other again.”

On Christmas Eve, 1971, Maria and Juliane were booked aboard a flight from Lima to the provincial town of Pucallpa where Hans-Wilhelm was working.

The aircraft, a Lockheed L-188A turboprop, carrying 86 passengers and six crew took off before noon in good weather, but after about 30 minutes ran into a thunderstorm.

“I was in a window seat because I always liked looking down at the forests,” Juliane says, “but soon it was too dark to see. It was as though night had fallen, and there was a tremendous amount of turbulence and lightning all around us.

“My mother said, ‘I don’t like this’, but I don’t think I was frightened. I wasn’t a nervous flyer. Everyone had been in such a good mood. They were excited about going home for Christmas and they were carrying presents, but now they were crying and praying.”

Minutes later, the entire plane lit up as a blinding flash of lightning ricocheted off the starboard wing. “I remember my mother turning to me, quite calmly, and saying, ‘Now it’s over.’

“Those must have been her last words. All I could hear were the engines roaring and people screaming, and the wind in my ears. And then I was no longer in the plane. I was falling.”

When I Fell From the Sky: The True Story of One Woman’s Miraculous Survival

Read more of this story in the May issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly.

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Video: How to survive a plane crash

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