Forty years ago today, Friday, October 13, 1972, an Uruguayan Air Force Fairchild turboprop chartered by the Stella Maris school’s alumni rugby team was crossing the Argentine portion of the Andes mountains on its way from Montevideo to Santiago, Chile.
Flying in heavy clouds and turbulence, the plane clipped two mountains, breaking off first one, then the other wing. As the right wing swept back it severed the plane’s tail, sending five passengers to their death. The fuselage hurtled forward silently, landing on a mountainside glacier and sliding hundreds of feet before coming to a stop over two miles above sea level.
Many died upon impact or shortly afterwards. Within days only 27 of the original 45 passengers remained alive. The team’s doctor had been killed upon impact, leaving a first year medical student, Gustavo Zerbino, and a second year medical student, Roberto Canessa, to fashion splints from the plane’s wreckage, and douse gaping wounds with aftershave in an effort to prevent infection.
The survivors, most of whom had never seen snow, were ill-equipped to deal with a record winter snowfall of over sixty feet. On their way to play an exhibiton match, they had packed only light clothing. They improvised snow goggles from the plane’s sun visors and bent aluminum from the plane's fuselage to melt snow into drinking water.
There was no vegetation at the crash site. The survivors ate cosmetics that the plane’s few female passengers carried, as well as toothpaste. Leather luggage was cut into strips and eaten, and seat cushions were ripped open in the hopes of finding straw to eat, but they were stuffed with plastic foam.
In his book Miracle In The Andes: 72 Days On The Mountain And My Long Trek Home, Nando Parrado wrote of how he made his last bit of food, a chocolate covered peanut, last for three days.
On the first day I slowly sucked the chocolate off the peanut, then I slipped the peanut into the pocket of my slacks. On the second day I carefully separated the peanut halves, slipping one half back into my pocket and placing the other half in my mouth. I sucked gently on the peanut for hours, allowing myself only a tiny nibble now and then. I did the same on the third day, and when I’d finally nibbled the peanut down to nothing, there was no food left at all.
Eventually the survivors decided that their only chance of remaining alive was to consume the flesh of their dead friends and family members. Some initially refused to do so, while the others choked down matchstick sized slivers dried on the airplane’s fuselage. Some convinced themselves to do it by likening the act to Holy Communion. They formed a pact, agreeing that if any one of them died the others had not only their permission, but their encouragement to use their bodies to keep themselves alive.
Three nations engaged in an aerial search, but the last of these was called off after ten days, the people on the mountain learning of this via a transistor radio. Other planes had previously crashed in the Andes, and no one had ever been rescued alive.
On the evening of October 29th, sixteen days after the crash, as the survivors huddled in the remnants of the fuselage against temperatures that reached -40, an avalanche swept over the plane, filling it with snow and killing another eight people.
Over the next several weeks the survivors mounted trial expeditions with small groups attempting to hike out of the cordillera in which they were trapped. None were successful, though on one sojourn the tail section of the plane was discovered, affording some additonal clothing from the luggage inside and a few slats of wood from Coca Cola crates that could be burned. Attempts were made to connect the batteries from the plane’s tail section to the cockpit radio, but to no fruition.
After over two months on the glacier, the survivors’ numbers having dwindled to sixteen, Roberto Canessa, Nando Parrado, and Antonio Vizintin, with no mountain climbing experience or equipment, spent several days successfully ascending one of the surrounding peaks. Looking to the other side they saw not the green valleys of Chile they’d hoped for but only more and more mountains. It was decided that Vizintin would give his supplies to the two others and return to the plane. The next day, before beginning their descent of the mountain’s other side, Canessa turned to Parrado and said “You and I are friends, Nando. We have been through so much. Now, let’s go die together.”
They climbed and hiked for a total of 44 miles over ten days and were near collapse when they spotted a Chilean cattle herder named Sergio Catalan on the other side of a raging snow melt. It was the following day before they were able to meet up with Catalan, who fed them and gave them shelter before riding ten hours on horseback to alert authorities. Catalan’s son described the two men as looking like “walking skeletons” and having “A smell of the graveyard.”
The rescue helicopters nearly crashed attempting to reach the plane’s wreckage. The thin air caused their engines to lose power and diminished the rotors’ effectiveness, and strong winds coming across the peaks tossed them back downwards repeatedly. In two day’s time they were able to bring everyone out of the cordillera.
On December 23rd, more than ten weeks after the Fairchild’s disappearance, news spread that 16 of its occupants were alive and had been rescued. They suffered from malnutrition, mineral deficiencies, broken bones and skull fractures, as well as burned lips and infections. They had lost between 30 and 80 lbs. each.
They had originally hoped to meet privately with the families of those who had died, but shortly after news of the rescue broke a Peruvian newspaper revealed that their survival had been dependent upon anthropophagy. While the Catholic church dismissed the survivors’ comparisons with the Eucharist, church officials were quick to affirm that such acts in extremis were acceptable, and that the sin would have been to not do what was necessary in order to survive.
In the forty years since these remarkable events, the survivors have all led full and complete lives. Roberto Canessa is a prominent cardiologist and once formed his own political party and ran for the presidency of Uruguay. Nando Parrado spent time as a professional race car driver, and today owns a number of businesses.
In 2010, when 33 Chilean miners were trapped underground in the Copiapó mine disaster, four of the Andes survivors travelled to the mine with messages of support from Uruguayan children.
The survivors gather each year on the anniversary of the crash, as I am sure they are doing today, then again on the anniversary of the avalanche, and then finally on the anniversary of their rescue. Many of them have visited the crash site, as well as the nearby grave of their teammates, friends, and family members, on multiple occasions.
Numerous articles and books have been written about the ordeal, and several movies have been made. Wikipedia has a very good summary, and I strongly recommend the 2007 documentary Stranded: I Have Come From A Plane That Crashed On The Mountains.
In 1974 the survivors chose author Piers Paul Read to chronicle their story. His book, Alive, is a thorough overview of their experience, as well as that of their families and loved ones as they pooled resources and hired their own aircraft to try to find the lost plane. In 1993 the book was adapted into a movie featuring Ethan Hawke among others. I do not recommend the movie because, among other reasons, it unnecessarily fictionalizes the story. It is certainly preferable however to the 1976 Mexican film Survive, a low budget unauthorized production that was later distributed in the USA by producer Allan Carr.
It was not until I read Nando Parrado’s book that I began to truly “wrap my head around” this extraordinary story. It is a tale so alien to normal experience, so foreign, that I found it took the very personal narrative of Parrado for me to even begin to grasp it.
I have read both it and Alive several times, and Parrado’s book remains quite likely the single best book I have ever read. I do not mean the best book on this subject. I mean the best book I have ever read. It is at times very difficult to read, as it is filled with pain and death and human beings subjected to horrors that no one should be put through.
The book is also gripping as an adventure story, thought-provoking in its insight as to how the individuals involved regarded their experiences as relative to the nature and existence of God, and inspiring as Parrado and the others first battle to stay alive in their snowy Hell, and then build lives for themselves after the rescue. If you visit Amazon’s page for the book and read the comments, you will not have to go far before reading messages from people who state they have had their lives changed, and even saved, by this extraordinary book. I cannot begin to do justice in this diary to this remarkable story of the human spirit. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.
Wikipedia page. Also contains links to Canessa, Parrado, and other survivors.
Official Website. Resource rich site, created on the 30th anniversary of the crash, with numerous photographs and links.
Stranded: I've Come From A Plane That Crashed On The Mountains. Extraordinary, award winning 2007 documentary directed by Gonzalo Arijón, working with cinematographer César Charlone (City Of God, The Constant Gardener.) Charlone was supposed to be on the flight, but missed the plane.
Alive, by Piers Paul Read. Definitive overview, focusing on the experiences of both the plane's passengers and their families.
Miracle In The Andes, 72 Days On The Mountain And My Long Trek Home, by Nando Parrado with Vince Rause. If you read only one book about these events, make it this one.
Vivien Foundation Decades after the rescue, people began approaching the survivors with requests for speaking engagements. Although reluctant at first, eventually Parrado, Canessa and others began to speak around the world about their experiences. They founded the Vivien Foundation to provide assistance to poor communities in Uruguay, contributing a portion of their speaking fees to fund the foundation. Today its focus is primarily on promoting organ donation.
UPDATE: Found this link to a Chilean newspaper article from today. All but one of the survivors (the article does not mention who was missing) met today in Chile with Sergio Catalan, who is now 90 years old.
And a YouTube video posted earlier today: