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The survivor of Flight 508

Posted in Adventure, Geography, Nature on Tuesday, 24 April 2007

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Juliane Koepcke

Flight 508 left Lima, the capital of Peru, on Christmas Eve, 1971. Its destination was Pucallpa, in the heart of the Peruvian jungle. Ground control received a routine message half an hour after takeoff that the plane would land in 38 minutes’ time. That was the pilot’s last communication with ground control, for radio contact was suddenly lost. Christmas, 1971, is a time which Juliane Koepcke, one of the passengers on board flight 508, will never forget. On that fatal Christmas Eve she woke up to find herself lying beside four of her fellow passengers. They, like the rest of the passengers on board the plane, had been killed.

In a flash she remembered what had happened. The plane had been flying through a violent storm. Suddenly she had been hurled out of the aircraft just before it crashed amid the jungle trees. As she lay on the rain-soaked jungle floor, with her feet bleeding and her body covered in bruises, the horror of what had happened overwhelmed her. The croaking sound of frogs all around her seemed to add to the nightmare, and Juliane blacked out again.

In the morning, she managed to get up and tried, in vain, to find the main part of the plane, and to search for her mother, who had been with her. All she discovered was a Christmas parcel with a piece of saturated Christmas cake in it. Fortunately, Juliane knew something of jungles, for her mother was an ornithologist and her father a zoologist. They had taught her how to survive in an emergency. “Always look for a stream,” her father had said, telling her that it would lead to a river. So, arming herself with a stick to ward off snakes, she started out to find a stream. Yet water would be dangerous — dreaded piranha fish would be attracted by an open wound in her foot. And on the banks there were alligators, snakes and poisonous spiders. Juliane was in luck, for she soon found a stream where she could drink, and from time to time she chewed one of a bag of toffees which she found among some wreckage. These were to last her for four days. She dared not risk poisoning herself by eating unknown fruits and berries.

By the fourth day, her strength was almost exhausted. Her wounds smarted, her collar-bone was broken, and walking on her injured foot was agonizing. But she had found her river, and hoped that sooner or later she would reach an Indian camp.

Three days later, Juliane had lapsed into delirium, battling on mindlessly. Suddenly, she spotted a canoe beside the bank, and a path leading to a hut. She decided to sleep in the hut that night. Fortunately heavy rains prevented her from setting out the next morning, for she would certainly have died in the wilderness. For three days, without food or water, she lay in the hut and waited for the rains to cease. Then the hut door was thrown open and three hunters burst in to shelter from the rains.

It was now 4 January 1972, and 11 days had passed since the disaster. Juliane Koepcke, aged 17, was the only survivor of flight 508. Her courage had helped her, against the odds, to reach safety.

4 comments on “The survivor of Flight 508”

  1. 1. spindizzy says:

    Incredible story. It was made into a film called Wings of Hope some years ago. She was lucky that her father, who was a well-known zoologist who had studied in Peru, had taught her survival skills.

  2. 2. countrybumpkin says:

    She must be in her 50s by now. I wonder whether she ever went back to the jungle or if she opted for a less adventurous life?

  3. 3. brianhluk says:

    Actually, Wings Of Hope (released 2000) was the second film based on this incident. The first was The Story of Juliane Koepcke (1974). Juliane returned to Germany where she recovered and returned to her studies, gaining a PhD in Zoology in 1987. She is now known as Dr Juliane Diller and she specialises in Mammalogy – the study of bats.

  4. 4. Amazon Jungle says:

    I remember being only 8 and Reading this incredibly powerful piece about a plane crash in the Amazon jungle. Only one girl survived out of 92 people as their plane fell apart in the sky. I read it time and time again, I WANTED to be that little girl I was reading about. To this day, I’ve already been to the Amazon Jungle and am planning another trip in a month. As I read through survival tips online, I came across her name. Curious, I wanted to know more regarding a girl’s survival after a plane crash. WOW! This was the exact same girl, now a successful woman, I had read about as a child in the Reader’s Digest! As I was reading, I found out that I will be taking the exact same route that she did on a plane to get from Lima to Pulcallpa! The dream of my entire life is finally manifesting! I will be studying with an Ayahuascuero Shaman for nearly a month in the middle of the jungle just like I did the first time. During my studies, I will be thinking about Juliane Diller Koepcke and how greatful I am for her incredible bravery on a journey far far from home.

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