Day 18: December 24, 1971 - My first Christmas Eve & A Story of Tragedy and Survival in the Amazon

Peruvian Airlines Electra crashes at headwaters of Amazon, killing all except Juliane Margaret Koepcke found days later.

17-Year-Old Only Survivor in Peruvian Accident

By Patrick Mondout

On Christmas Eve 1971, a Peruvian airliner was struck by lightning in an area of heavy turbulence at 21,000 feet and crashed into a the Amazon. Miraculously, a German teenager survived the crashed and walked out of the jungle nine days later.

The LANSA (Lineas Aereas Nacionales Airlines) Lockheed Electra L-188 had taken off from the Jorge Chavez International Airport in Lima a little after 11:00 p.m. on a flight to Pucallpa, Peru. About a half hour after takeoff and at about 21,000 feet, the aircraft entered a thunderstorm and heavy turbulence.

The Electra, known as Mateo Pumacahua, was struck by lightning which sparked a fire. The pilots immediately had difficulty controlling the aircraft as systems began failing and it soon went into a dive. While the crew attempted to level out the plane, the fire and turbulent forces on the wings caused the right wing and most of the left wing to separate from the aircraft. The aircraft came crashing down in a mountainous region of the Amazon.

Juliane Margaret Koepcke had a broken collarbone and was unconscious for an unknown amount of time but had survived the crashed still strapped in her seat. When she came to, she set out in vain to find her mother. Maria Koepcke, her mother and a leading Peruvian ornithologist, was dead.

Rescue crews searched for the aircraft without success. Koepcke would have to save herself. Several previous trips to the Amazon with her parents had taught her much about the jungle. Her studies at the German High School in Lima, which were preparing her for a career as a zoologist (like her father, who she was attempting to visit), would no doubt help as well.

Koepcke found a stream and began nine days of wading through knee-high water and fighting off swarms of insects and leeches. On the ninth day, she found a canoe and shelter. Then she waited.

Hours later, local lumbermen returned and found her. They tried to get her to eat but she was quite sick and refused. Insects had buried eggs in her skin and they were beginning to hatch. One of the men poured gasoline on her and, as she told the London Daily Mail, "I counted 35 worms that came out of my arms alone."

The men offered what assistance they could provide but it was too late in the day to start the journey back to civilization; she slept one more night in the jungle before the men took her on the final seven hour journey via canoe down the river to a lumber station where she was airlifted to a hospital.

When rescue crews finally located the aircraft with Koepcke's help, they discovered that as many as 14 others had survived the initial crash but were unable to seek help as the teenager had and died awaiting rescue.

Koepcke is now a biologist in Germany and her ordeal was the subject of the 1999 Werner Herzog documentary Wings of Hope.

An Italian movie starring Susan Penhaligon was released in 1974 and was alternatively called The Story of Juliane Koepcke and Miracles Still Happen. It was so bad that it remains out of print in any medium. The story was also the subject of a 1979 children's book called Crash in the Jungle by Jim Alderson.

This was the second LANSA Electra in a year to crash killing 90+ people. LANSA withdrew the aircraft from service shortly thereafter. Ironically, LANSA had purchased Electras after one of their Lockheed L-749 Constellations had crashed in 1966.

We received the following email from Rebecca Lyon who lost both of her parents on this flight:

The LANSA flight was from Lima across the Andes to Pucallup. My husband whose brother Nathan was on the plane tells me the storm that came in was huge. As the turbulence increased for the airplane, the crew urged the pilot to return to Lima. Being Christmas Eve he decided to fly on so the passengers would be able to enjoy the holiday (flight recorded via my husband). Most of the passengers were Peruvian returning home from school.

My parents, Roger and Margery Hedges, taught children of the staff and missionary's (Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) aka Wycliffe here in the states) located in Yarinacocha not far from Pucallup. There were three others from SIL on board, Nathan Lyon, 13 (my husbands brother), Harold Davis, 47 and David Eriksson, 19.

As the afternoon progressed Mr. Lyon, who was a pilot, had been listening on the radio. The plane did not arrive and no replies were received at ground control in Pucallup. Shortly afterwards the plane was declared missing.

On December 31, Jerrie Cobb, one of the only women to pass astronaut training, flew down from Columbia to help with the search. January 2, 1972 hunters brought the only survivor, Juliana Koepcke, 17 out of the jungle. She was able to provide details that led to the location of the wreck. January 5, 1972 pieces of the wreck were sighted around 10:00a.m.. That morning Floyd Lyon, father of Nathan, was flying with Jerrie Cobb. They circled the wreck to mark the location for other searchers.

By January 13, 1972, ninety bodies hade been recovered and 52 identified. Nathan and David were buried on January 12th and my parents with Harold Davis on the 14th. SIL has a small cemetery in Yarinacocha where their remains lay today.

To the best of my knowledge the cause of the crash was determined to be human error and structural failure. Juliana Koepcke has said she saw flames on the right wing leading to speculation that the plane was hit by lighting. Soon after the plane broke apart or exploded scattering wreckage over a mile and a half. LANSA airlines had a poor reputation in Peru. They had been granted a number of extensions of their flight permit after a suspension in September of 1970 (because of a crash a few weeks earlier). The extension was due to expire December 31, just days after the Christmas Eve crash. In January 1972 their flight permit was cancelled.

I could go into way more detail but this is really the nut of the story. Juliana Koepcke now lives in Germany. She was part of a documentary, Wings of Hope, made by Werner Herzog.

Thank you for sharing this with our readers, Rebecca.

Source: The Survivor. Newsweek. January 17, 1972: 39.

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