At the age of 17, Koepcke took a 60-minute flight in Peru with her mother, from Lima to Pucallpa for Christmas. The final destination was Panguana, a research station in the Peruvian jungle where Juliane lived, on and off, with her zoologist parents. The plane hit a thunderstorm and cracked into pieces, sending Juliane into a 10,000-foot descent, still strapped into her seat, separated from everything and everyone else. She survived, miraculously, then spent 11 days inching toward civilization, undetected by rescue planes. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the air disaster that made Juliane—as even strangers call her—a famous sole survivor.
When I Fell From the Sky breaks her silence about it. “If I had been a pure city child, I never would have made it back to life,” she says, crediting her parents for teaching her about the dangers of the rainforest. Her account of the 11-day trek is enthralling. In shock and suffering from injuries, she made it to a river’s edge without her eyeglasses, wearing just a minidress and one sandal. It was rainy season, so there was no fruit to eat. She was either freezing or boiling, set upon by bugs. She contended with stingrays, snakes, king vultures and caimans. Eventually, local woodcutters found her and mistook her for a water goddess. Brought to safety, she became an international icon of hope.
Unhappy with her portrayal in early interviews, Juliane refused most media requests until 1998, when Werner Herzog did a documentary about her accident. The film worked like therapy and freed Juliane from her “protective shield.” Yet readers still sense she would rather take the details to her grave. There’s only one thing that would make her write this book: drawing attention to Panguana, her parents’ nature reserve, and her goal of preserving it from encroaching civilization. If she has to peddle the details of her past to get everyone’s attention, so be it. She has been through worse.