On December 24 1971, LANSA Flight 508 (a Lockheed L-188A Electra turboprop, registered OB-R-941) was struck by lightning during a thunderstorm travelling from Lima to Pucallpa, Peru. It was the worst lightning strike disaster in history.
Around forty minutes after take off, at about 12:36 p.m. local time, the aircraft was flying at about 21,000 ft (6,400 m) above sea level when they encountered an area of thunderstorms and severe turbulence. A lightning strike ignited the fuel tank in the right wing, which quickly led to structural failure of the aircraft and an extremely steep fall. Although it is not uncommon for engines to be hit by lightning, the Electra aircraft they were on was not built for flying in heavy turbulence due to its very rigid wings. There was evidence the crew decided to continue the flight despite the hazardous weather ahead, apparently because of pressure to meet the holiday schedule.
The plane broke up in mid-air, disintegrating at 3.2 km (10,000 ft) killing 91 people, all six of its crew and 85 of its 86 passengers. One person survived. The lone survivor, a 17-year-old teenager named Juliane Koepcke.
When the plane split into two, Juliane fell two miles into the deep jungle below her while still strapped into her seat. Incredibly she survived the fall with only a broken collarbone, a gash to her right arm, and her right eye swollen shut.
“I was definitely strapped in [the airplane seat] when I fell, it must have turned and buffered the crash, otherwise I wouldn’t have survived.”
Juliane was a German Peruvian high school senior student studying in Lima, intending to become a zoologist, like her parents. She and her mother, ornithologist Maria Koepcke, were traveling to meet with her father, biologist Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke, who was working in the city of Pucallpa. Luckily for her she had learned enough to keep herself alive, all alone and injurded, for an incredible ten days in the jungle.
Her first priority was to find her mother, who had been seated next to her, but her search was unsuccessful. Luckily for Juliane, she found some sweets which were to become her only food and source of nutrition. After looking for her mother and other passengers, she was able to locate a small stream. She waded through knee-high water downstream from her landing site, relying on the survival principle her father had taught her, that tracking downstream should eventually lead to civilization. The stream provided clean water and a natural path through the dense rain forest vegetation.
During the trip, Koepcke could not sleep at night because of her insect bites, which had become infected. After nine days, several of them spent floating downstream, she found a boat moored near a shelter. There she found the boat’s motor and fuel tank. Relying again on her father’s advice, Koepcke poured gasoline on her wounds, which succeeded in removing thirty-five maggots from one arm, then waited until rescuers arrived.
“I remember having seen my father when he cured a dog of worms in the jungle with gasoline. I got some gasoline and poured it on myself. I counted the worms when they started to slip out. There were 35 on my arm. I remained there but I wanted to leave. I didn’t want to take the boat because I didn’t want to steal it.”
Hours later, the lumbermen who used the shelter arrived and tended to her injuries and bug infestations. The next morning they took her via a seven-hour canoe ride down river to a lumber station in the Tournavista District. With the help of a local pilot, she was airlifted to a hospital where he father was waiting for her in Pucallpa.
Juliane then discovers her mum had survived the crash but unfortunately had died a few days later from her injuries.
I had nightmares for a long time, for years, and of course the grief about my mother’s death and that of the other people came back again and again. The thought Why was I the only survivor? haunts me. It always will.
Her unbelievable survival sparked wide debate and speculation. What exactly saved her from falling two miles to her death from a burning plane? What do you think? Comment Below!