Juliane Koepcke was born in 1954, in Lima, Peru, to German parents. Her father was a biologist and her mother was an ornithologist; they had moved to Peru to study the wildlife, and young Juliane was brought up between the city of Lima and their home in the jungle, Panguana. Panguana is a remote spot in the Amazon rainforest and the family had to travel for several days by foot, bus, boat and plane to reach Lima in order to buy supplies. Juliane was homeschooled by her parents as a child, but attended a German high school in Lima when she was a teenager. By that point in was the early 1970s and it was possible to fly between Lima and Pucallpa, on the edge of the jungle, in small aircraft. These little planes were always a risk, and the LANSA airline in particular was known to have sub-par aeroplanes. But on Christmas Eve 1971, Juliane and her mother were desperate to get home to Panguana to be with her father for Christmas, and they took a LANSA flight.
Over the jungle, in the middle of nowhere, the plane hit a storm and spun out of control. It went down in the rainforest, torn to pieces. Juliane fell two miles from the sky to the jungle floor, still strapped to her seat; she was the only survivor of the crash.
When I Fell From The Sky is her account of what happened and how she survived eleven days lost in the jungle as a seventeen year old, using her knowledge of the jungle and its animals to help her. She also talks about her family’s life in the jungle, her parents’ work, the aftermath of her accident and how her life has been affected by it.
Koepcke’s description of the lead up to the crash and her experience of the actual crash are vivid and poignant, with her obvious emotion about her memories showing through her writing. The book was originally written in German and at times the translation is a little clunky, but as I say the emotion and drama of Koepcke’s experiences shine through. She’s clearly a good writer and remembers every moment of that fateful day and the eleven days in the jungle that followed.
The section in which the young Juliane is alone in the jungle is truly amazing. She was very lucky to have already spent time in the jungle, albeit in a series of huts with her parents, and her parents’ knowledge effectively saves her life. Juliane remembers the call of bird that her mother taught her stays near water and also near people – so she follows its call down river in the hope of finding someone to help her. Her parents’ experience also taught her which fruits were poisonous and what was safe to eat.
Juliane’s knowledge of the jungle certainly helped her to survive, but so did her bravery and determination to get back to civilisation. Her memories of her time after the crash are obviously still vivid, and she remembers being in shock and not quite taking in what was happening at the time. At one point she finds a three-seat bench from the plane, half stuck into the ground, with the passengers still strapped into it. There are two men and one woman, and she approaches carefully to see if the woman in her mother – it isn’t, but then she remembers that her mother was sitting next to her and that when she was falling, she was the only one strapped to her three-seat bench. Her mother was somewhere else in the jungle. Moments like this demonstrate to the reader that although Juliane was in shock at the time, with her emotions not fully registering, she was still brave and confronted her situation head on.
When I Fell From The Sky has some really beautiful and sad moments, as young Juliane comes to term with what has happened to her. On the eleventh day in the jungle she comes across the boat and camp of some fishermen, who find her and eventually take her to a doctor’s house at the jungle mission station. She recovers there and is visited by her father; it is also there that she hears that her mother’s body has been found. Her father has to go and identify her, and it is only after this that Juliane really accepts that her mother has died. After all that time, this final acceptance is deeply emotional and overwhelming for both Juliane and the reader.
Koepcke is an accomplished writer and carefully chronicles how the world press reacted to her incredible story, and how people still write letters to her and articles about her (like this one!) to this day. In 1998 she returned to the site of the crash with filmmaker Werner Herzog, who was due to board the same plane as her in 1971 to shoot in the jungle with his team, but was bumped from the flight. He followed her story and eventually got in touch about making a film about her experience, which came out in 2000.
Despite a few moments of clunky translation and a few digressions from the main story thread, I really enjoyed reading When I Fell From The Sky. As I said Koepcke is a very perceptive and measured writer, and her memories are vivid and immersive. I bought this book after coming across it by chance in Waterstones, and I am really glad I read it!
Originally published as Als ich vom Himmel fiel by Piper Malik in Munich in 2011, and by Nicholas Brealey Publishing in the UK in 2012 as When I Fell From The Sky.