Juliana Krupka is the Peruvian woman of German heritage who is well known for her work in biology. Yet, Krupka did not become prominent as a scientist. Instead, when she was only 17, a terrible accident tested every fiber of her existence and catapulted her to international notoriety. This remarkable adolescent was the sole survivor of a catastrophic jet crash and spent 11 days alone in the bush. But how did she accomplish this incredible feat?
To comprehend Krupka’s story, we must go back to her unusual childhood. Juliana Krupka was a German citizen, despite being born in Lima, Peru, on October 10, 1954. Her father, Hans Wilhelm Krupka, was a zoologist who conducted studies in South America, and her mother, Maria Krupka, was an orthodontist. They were out of the ordinary in a variety of ways. They broke away from Lima’s established scientific community and founded “Penguana,” a research station deep in Peru’s Amazon.
The property was originally intended for five years of field research, but the family quickly made it their home. The accommodation was once a timber hut that had been abandoned by the inhabitants. It was built on stilts with a palm leaf roof and an extra kitchen hut next to it. Juliana learned how to survive in the bush away from her parents during this period. Although these survival methods would eventually save her life, local officials believed she should be in school and compelled her to leave the facility.
Juliana and her mother were flying back into the bush to see her father when she was a senior in high school. That’s when calamity struck. Juliana and her mother boarded a Lanza Lockheed Electric commercial airplane called “Mid-flight.” The plane was hit by lightning after flying into a hazardous rainstorm at ten thousand feet. The jet shattered as the passengers and wreckage plummeted.
Juliana dropped over two kilometers into the lonely rainforest below, still fastened into her seat. This was a dramatic incident, according to Juliana’s remarks. Suddenly, the day changed to night as lightning struck in all directions. Passengers gasped as the airplane severely shook. Luggage, packaged gifts, and garments plummeted from the sky. Lockers and sandwich trays flew into the air, while half-empty glasses fell on passengers’ heads.
They wailed and screamed. “If everything goes well,” my mother replies hesitantly above the right wing, “I noticed a brilliant bright light. I’m not sure if it’s a lightning strike or an explosion. I lose track of time. The plane begins to plummet. I can look down the aisle into the cockpit from my seat in the back. The plane’s thunderous noise fills my ears, my head, and my entire body. Over and beyond everything. Now it’s all over,” my mother says calmly. Unfortunately, her mother was correct, and she did not survive the horrible wreckage of Lanza Flight 508. In reality, none of the other passengers made it out alive.
Juliana remembers the jungle seeming like cauliflower as she dropped, and then she lost consciousness. Surprisingly, she only sustained minor injuries, including a broken collarbone and a foot wound. Her unlikely survival has sparked much debate, with some speculating that staying belted into a row of chairs may have slowed her fall.
The updraft from the rainstorm and the dense foliage she fell into when she awoke the next morning may have also minimized the impact. The concussion, combined with the shock, only allowed her to process basic information. She’d escaped a plane disaster. She couldn’t see out of one eye very well. She then fell back into unconsciousness.
Krupka took half a day to fully awaken. She only had to devour a packet of candies, but she remembered the important lessons her parents had taught her about jungle survival. Three teachings that most likely saved her life: remember that it’s not the big animals you should be afraid of, but the insects—spiders, ants, flies, and mosquitoes. You should find a river where human settlements and workers are likely to be, and don’t eat any fruit that could be poisonous.
Juliana had almost no tools or resources to help her in the jungle. Her life would have been much easier if she had a lighter and a knife. She could have sliced the core of the palm, which is edible for sugar, and cut open the thick vine covering surrounding her for fresh, pure drinking water. If she had built a shelter and sent out a smoke signal…
Juliana’s first thought was to look for her mother or any other passengers who could have survived the fall, but she couldn’t find anyone. At one point, she discovered three passenger deaths, but none of them were familiar. Juliana had lost one of her shoes as well as her glasses in the crash.
As she traveled through the rainforest, she used her shoe’s foot to inspect the ground in front of her to ensure she wasn’t walking on a snake. She quickly came upon a tiny creek. She understood that following this stream would provide her with some protection from the rainforest and a clean path downstream to larger rivers with people living alongside them. She spent the majority of her 11 days in the rainforest wading through the water, and the candy she found in one of her pockets was the only item she ate.
Juliana stated during a return visit to the area that the risks of the jungle are largely underestimated. She said this while she stood in the Rio Yuya Pichis River. Despite stingrays, crocodiles, and piranhas being present in those waters, she claims she’s safe because piranhas are harmless in moving water most of the time. Lord-use crocodiles and stingrays move when nudged with a stick.
Understandably, Juliana realized she couldn’t stay in the bush indefinitely. As she recalls it, she was in urgent need of rescuing. “I hear the hum of airplane engines overhead. I look up, but the woods are too dense. There’s no way I can make myself visible here. A sense of impotence overtakes me. I have to get out of the thick of the forest so that the rescuers can see me.”
The jet crash spurred Peru’s largest search in its history, but due to the denseness of the forest, the aircraft was unable to identify any wreckage from the crash, let alone a single person. Things became more urgent and frightening for Juliana. She was covered in fly bites at one point, and maggots began to appear like asparagus tips from a jar.
They were devouring her. To dig them out, she smashed her ring into sharp pieces. On the 10th day, “I couldn’t stand well, and I drifted along the side of a larger river I had discovered, feeling lonely as if I were a parallel planet far distant from any human being,” she wrote. “As the days wore on, my eyes and ears fool me often. I’m convinced I see the roof of a house on the riverbank or hear chickens clucking. I’m so tired I fantasize about food, from elaborate feasts to simple meals. Each morning, it gets harder to stand up and get into the cold water.”
Is there any sensing going on? Yes, I tell myself. I have to keep going. She said after initially believing she was hallucinating, she discovered a boat and the nearby cabin containing an outboard engine and a liter of gasoline. She recalls her father using gasoline to cure wounds when she was a child, so she spits a mouthful of gas on her maggot-infested arm. It was successful; to avoid the gasoline, the maggots left the incision as the worms erupted from her flesh. She counted them; they were 35 in number.
Juliana sat anxiously beside the boat, waiting for its owner to return. Even after everything she’d been through, she didn’t want to take the boat without authorization. She waited all night in the hut, displaying extraordinary self-control, until a party of workers arrived the next morning and discovered her horrible condition.
The lumbermen were taken aback to see a young German girl at their camp. Juliana swiftly introduced herself in Spanish and explained her position. They bandaged her wounds, fed her, and she slept well for the first time since her ordeal began. They brought her to their hamlet, and the next day, a kind pilot consented to fly her to see her father, who assumed he had lost both his daughter and his wife in the same plane crash. “I saw my father today following my rescue. He couldn’t say much, so we just hugged each other for a while.” Her mother’s body was discovered a few days later, and it was revealed that she had survived the crash as well but had been severely injured and died several days later.
Juliana Krupka was the only survivor of the 91 persons on board, and she was thoroughly questioned by the Air Force and the police. In addition to being thrust into the media spotlight, the grieving and sadness were delayed. She acquired a severe phobia of flying after her injuries and the loss of her mother, and she experienced recurring nightmares for years.
Juliana returned to Germany after the crash and fully recovered from her injuries. Like her parents, understanding its importance to the Earth’s ecosystem, she is a well-known mammologist, a subfield of biology that focuses on mammals. With a Ph.D. under her belt, she married joyfully and began to live a more normal life.
Juliana, now a biologist and librarian at the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology, goes to Penguana regularly, frequently with the research station she inherited, and continues to welcome scientists from all over the world.
Juliana’s photograph was plastered on the covers of magazines and newspapers following the plane disaster, but she was understandably traumatized and refused to do interviews or deal with the media in any way.
But that changed when she found the perfect people with whom she could share her story. Her remarkable double survival story has been the subject of books and films, including her autobiography “When I Fell from the Sky” and the documentary called “Wings of Hope” by director Werner Herzog.
However, she still suffers from survivor’s guilt and wonders why others died while she did not. Nevertheless, her story is fascinating and demonstrates that even in the face of overwhelming odds, planning and determination may lead to a long and happy life.