At a cursory glance, Juliane Diller seems incredibly unassuming. She is a 66 year old mammalogist, who dedicated her life to science and the study of the natural world. However, at just 17 years old, she became the sole survivor of a 1971 plane crash that claimed the lives of the 91 other people on board— including her own mother. Her story was one that captivated the world, and continues to captivate new generations with every retelling.
On Christmas Eve, 1971, Juliane and her mother boarded a flight in Lima that was destined for Pucallpa— a small port-city near the Ucayali River. Her final destination was supposed to be Panguana, a research station in the Amazon where she had lived off and on with her parents, who were both Zoologists. Unfortunately though, she never reached this destination. Instead, she woke up on Christmas Day dazed and confused, deep in a Peruvian rainforest— and completely alone.
As she slowly regained consciousness, she tried to piece together the events that had led her to this point. She remembered boarding the flight with her mother, a flight that was only supposed to take less than an hour. About 25 minutes into the trip, the passenger plane flew into a thunderstorm and the cabin began to shake. Storage bins began bursting open, showering luggage onto the fearful passengers, as the cabin continued to become more turbulent. The teenager remembered the sound of people weeping, and she remembered watching a bolt of lightning strike the plane’s wing— right before the vessel began to nosedive. She remembered her mother stating, evenly, “Now it’s all over.” And then she remembered a deafening silence. She remembered the aircraft physically breaking apart, throwing the teenager into the open air. “I hadn’t left the plane,” she recalled. “The plane had left me.”
After the plane had broken apart, the teenager plunged, still strapped to her three-seat bench, two miles to the ground. She could see the tops of the canopy of trees as she fell. “From above, the treetops resembled heads of broccoli,” Dr. Diller recalled. She quickly blacked out, only to regain consciousness alone on Christmas Day. Unlike others, Juliane’s row of seats had landed in dense foliage, which cushioned her impact. Somehow, she had sustained only minor injuries: a broken collarbone, a sprained knee, some gashes, and some vision problems. She was covered with mud and her dress had torn on impact. But somehow, she was alive. She had survived a 10,000 foot plunge and sustained only minor injuries. It was a miracle.
However, Juliane soon realized that the plane crash was only the beginning of her troubles. And the teenager now found herself alone and injured in the middle of the Amazon. With only a small bag of candy to eat, Juliane was now tasked with navigating the dangerous jungle on foot, and somehow finding her way back to civilization. Her journey took eleven perilous days— days that were filled with swarms of mosquitoes, poisonous snakes and spiders, and venomous riverbed stingrays. Juliane, who was nearsighted, had lost her eyeglasses, as well as one of her sandals. Thus, the teenager was forced to navigate the treacherous jungle half-blind and half-barefoot.
Throughout her journey, Juliane became introspective. “On my lonely 11-day hike back to civilization, I made myself a promise,” Dr. Diller recalled. “I vowed that if I stayed alive, I would devote my life to a meaningful cause that served nature and humanity.” Somehow, the teenager eventually made her way back to civilization. By the tenth day, she began seeing hints of humanity— a small path, a hut, and a boat. By the eleventh day, she began hearing voices— she described them as the ‘voices of angels.’ She was soon rescued by the voices, and the day after her rescue she was reunited with her father again. She had officially survived the ordeal, and now it was up to her to make good on her promise.
In the years that followed, Juliane found herself drawn to the jungle that she crashed into. She moved to Germany and earned a Ph.D. in biology— eventually becoming a zoologist. But over the years, she found herself flying back to the remote conservation outpost established by her parents in that same jungle. “The jungle caught me and saved me,” said Dr. Diller. “It was not its fault that I landed there.”
Throughout her ordeal, Juliane developed a respect for the jungle, and vowed to spend the rest of her life protecting it and researching it. In the 1970s, Dr. Diller and her father began petitioning the government to protect the jungle from clearing, hunting, and colonization, according to The New York Times. By 2011, their efforts paid off, and the Ministry of Environment declared Panguana a private conservation area. Now, fifty years since her traumatic trip through the jungle, Dr. Diller can look back on the ordeal and find purpose in it. She developed a deep love for the jungle that saved her, and devoted the rest of her career to, in turn, saving it. “The jungle was my real teacher,” Dr. Diller explained. “The jungle is as much a part of me as my love for my husband, the music of the people who live along the Amazon and its tributaries, and the scars that remain from the plane crash.”