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Read about a teenage girl’s harrowing journey after surviving a plane crash

Susan Penhaligon played Juliane Koepcke in Miracles Still Happen, the film based on Koepcke’s story. (Photo: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: LANSA Flight 508

What it’s about: On Christmas Eve 1971, a Peruvian turboprop passenger plane was struck by lightning. In what became the deadliest lightning strike in history, the plane crashed into the Amazon jungle, killing the crew and every passenger, except one. Seventeen-year-old Juliane Koepcke lived through the crash against all odds, but her struggle for survival was just beginning.

Biggest controversy: LANSA (Lineas Aéreas Nacionales Sociedad Anonima) did not have a good safety record. The Flight 508 page links to LANSA Flight 502, which crashed after takeoff in 1970, killing 101 people, all but one (half of whom were a group of exchange students from Buffalo, New York and their teachers), and two people on the ground. There’s no link to the page for LANSA Flight 501, which crashed into a mountainside in 1966, killing all 49 people onboard.

(Side note: “Sociedad Anonima” literally translates to “anonymous society,” but in Peru an S.A. is a type of corporate structure, similar to an LLC in America. The rest of the name translates to “national airline.”)

Strangest fact: Simply that Koepcke survived. She was a high school senior, hoping to follow in the footsteps of her parents, a zoologist and an ornithologist. The latter, her mother, was with her on the flight, returning from a nature preserve the family had founded. When lightning struck the right wing, which contained a fuel tank, Koepcke reports the wing didn’t explode, but the plane simply started to disintegrate. She fell two miles, still strapped to her seat (it’s speculated the row of seats spun “like a helicopter,” slowing her fall). The seat also seemed to have cushioned her fall through the trees, and while she didn’t die in the crash, she drifted in and out of consciousness for 19 hours before coming to with horrific injuries—a broken collarbone, a partly broken shin, torn ACL, a strained vertebra, deep cuts to her limbs, and popped capillaries in one eye that forced it swollen shut. But she was alive.

Thing we were happiest to learn: She stayed alive. Koepcke may have survived the crash, but she was injured and alone, in the middle of the rainforest, with only a sleeveless dress, one shoe (she lost the other one and her glasses in the crash), and a small bag of candy she found in the wreckage. It took her half a day just to be able to stand without feeling dizzy. She spent another full day searching in vain for her mother.


But her father had taught her wilderness survival. She knew enough to find a river and follow it downstream and to throw her shoe on the ground ahead to find snakes. She followed the river for days, as her injuries got worse—some becoming infested with maggots, which she tried in vain to remove. On the 10th day of her journey, she found a boat and a loggers’ hut. She used diesel fuel she found there to successfully remove the maggots. She considered taking the boat, but even after everything she had been through she couldn’t bring herself to steal. Instead she decided to spend the night in the hut. Eventually some loggers found her, took her by boat to their base, seven hours away, where she could be airlifted to a hospital, where she was reunited with her father.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Juliane wasn’t the only survivor of the crash, just the only survivor of the rainforest. Once the wreckage was searched, it was discovered that at least 14 other passengers survived the initial crash—Koepcke’s mother among them—but they were too badly hurt to traverse the jungle in search of help as she had.


Also noteworthy: Koepcke’s story was the subject of a 1974 Italian film, Miracles Still Happen, for which she wrote the story. Her ordeal was also the subject of a 1998 Werner Herzog documentary, Wings Of Hope. He brought Koepcke back to the scene of the crash, where they discovered fragments of the plane, and then followed her path out of the jungle. Herzog took a personal interest in the story because he was nearly on the same flight. He was in Peru scouting locations for Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, and had to change his reservation at the last minute.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Flight 508 is part of an exhaustive list of accidents involving commercial aircraft. The page covers 1919 to present and includes everything from the first-ever midair collision in 1922, to the Hindenburg disaster, to the crash that killed several members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, to the September 11th attacks.


Further down the wormhole: Nearly dying in a plane crash on Christmas Eve has to rank very low among ways to spend the holiday. But virtually every part of the world has its own Christmas traditions, as the holiday is celebrated worldwide. At least, people did before the holiday was eradicated by the War On Christmas, which banned gifts, tinsel, and good cheer forever. Ha. Just kidding. People just sometimes say “Happy Holidays” so as to not pointedly exclude other religious traditions, and to include cultural holidays like New Year’s and Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa was created to celebrate African-American culture and African heritage, and while Wikipedia denotes it as the first specifically African-American holiday, it immediately undercuts that claim with a “see also Juneteenth.” Nonetheless, Kwanzaa’s included on a list of African-American firsts that also includes Cathay Williams, a freed slave who became the first black woman to serve in the U.S. Army. We’ll hear her story next week.

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