Saturday, 31 Jul 2021

Teenage girl fell 10,000 feet when her plane was hit by lightning and survived

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Fifty years ago a 17-year-old girl fell 9,843 feet from a plane that was struck by lightning — and miraculously, she lived.

Juliane Diller was the only person to survive the tragic 86-passenger plane crash and landed with minor injuries, still strapped to her seat, in the Peruvian rainforest.

The teenager boarded what was meant to be a short flight with her mother on Christmas Eve, 1971, but 25 minutes into the journey a bolt of lightning hit the aircraft's right wing.

Her final destination was meant to be a biological research station named Panguana, where she lived on and off with her mother, Maria, and father, Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke, both zoologists.

Speaking to The New York Times decades afterwards, Juliane recalls her mum calmly saying: "Now it's all over."

The bolt of lightning caused the aircraft to break apart and Juliane, who was strapped into a window seat at the back of the plane, broke away from everyone else onboard.

"The next thing I knew, I was no longer inside the cabin," she said.

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“I was outside, in the open air. I hadn’t left the plane; the plane had left me."

The three-seat bench that she was strapped into was now spinning out of control hurtling towards the jungle canopy below.

The nearly 10,000 feet impact is believed to have been cushioned by the bench landing in the dense foliage.

She woke in the Peruvian rainforest on Christmas morning with a broken collarbone, a sprained knee and multiple gashes to her shoulder and calf.

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One eye had also swollen shut and worst of all, she says, was the disappearance of her glasses – which she desperately needed to see due to being near-sighted.

“I am completely soaked, covered with mud and dirt, for it must have been pouring rain for a day and a night," she wrote in her 2011 memoir When I Fell From the Sky.

The shock, concussion and debilitating "feeling of abandonment" reportedly helped the teen to push through the forest and overcome all of its dangers.

With only a small bag of sweets to sustain her, Juliane was up against poisonous snakes and spiders, swarms of mosquitoes and riverbed stingrays that lashed out with violent tails.

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The journey through the seemingly never-ending forest lasted for 11 whole days.

The crash occurred in the middle of wet season, which meant Juliane could not pick any fruit or find dry kindling for fire. She had to depend on river water for any nourishment she could get.

Juliane eventually managed to escape the forest after coming across a group of Peruvian missionaries who took her to a local hospital.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the LANSA Flight 508 plane crash, which has been named the deadliest lightning strike in aviation history.

In the years after the crash, Juliane moved to Germany and gained Ph.D in biology, going on to become an eminent zoologist.

She married Erich Diller, an entomologist, in 1989.

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To this day she continues to fly and is constantly drawn back to Panguana, the biological research station set up by her parents.

“The jungle caught me and saved me,” she told The New York Times.

“It was not its fault that I landed there.”

Juliane took over the role as director of Panguana following the death of her father in 2000.

She said: “On my lonely 11-day hike back to civilisation, I made myself a promise.

“I vowed that if I stayed alive, I would devote my life to a meaningful cause that served nature and humanity.”

Panguana is the oldest biological research station in Peru and "offers outstanding conditions for biodiversity researchers," said Andreas Segerer, deputy director of the Bavarian State Collection for Zoology in Munich.

He added: "Its extraordinary biodiversity is a garden of Eden for scientists, and a source of yielding successful research projects."

  • Plane Crash

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