Miracle of the Andes

On October 12, 1972 an amateur rugby team from the suburb Carrasco, Uruguay, and some friends and supporters boarded a charter plane in Montevideo, bound for Santiago, Chile for a game. Forty passengers and five crew were on the plane that day; only 16 would ultimately survive the trip.

The small plane could only fly to 22,500 feet, not high enough to clear the impressive Andes mountains, so the flight involved navigation through designated passes between the peaks. Bad weather could be a real hazard, and after a stop in Buenos Aires, the pilots stopped one night in Mendoza, Argentina, before tackling the mountain range. By mid-afternoon the next day the weather finally cleared enough for the flight to proceed, and the 45 took off once again. It was Friday, October 13.

Unfortunately, the pilot made a fatal error while in flight: he radioed ahead that he had crossed the mountains into Chile, while in fact they had not yet cleared the range. Following instructions from the Chilean control tower, they descended into the clouds, only to hit severe turbulence. The pilot and co-pilot realized that they had miscalculated and tried desperately to pull the plane up, but were unsuccessful: the right wing clipped a peak, flipped over the fuselage, and tore the tail off the plane. Seconds later the left wing was severed; people in the rear of the plane fell out of the gaping hole. The remains of the plane hurtled like a missile into the snow and slid forward; the impact tore the seats loose and they piled towards the front. The remnants of the plane came to a stop.

The team's doctor was dead, but two young medical students, Roberto Canessa and Gustavo Zerbino, did what they could to organize the chaos, instructing their fellow teammates to drag out the dead (three of those still in the plane), and trying to comfort those with injuries, mostly broken legs sustained when the seats piled forward on impact. The pilot had been killed instantly and the co-pilot soon died of his injuries; the only surviving crew member, a mechanic, was little help, and the radio was not working. As night fell the cold became unbearable, and the team captain, Marcelo Perez, aided by two teammates, plugged the gaping rear of the fuselage as best they could with seats and suitcases. Graziela Mariani, pinned under the seats with two broken legs and internal injuries, moaned constantly; by morning she was dead.

In the days that followed the survivors persevered in their sorry situation, ripping the seat covers off for blankets, organizing what food there was - a little chocolate and candy, some wine - and tending the injured as best they could, without medicine or painkillers. On the second day a plane flew by overhead, and though they screamed and waved, they were not seen. Several of the passengers were suffering from altitude sickness and one boy, Nando Parrado, was unconscious for three days; when he finally came to, he learned that his mother had died in the crash and his sister was gravely injured, and though he did what he could to tend to her, she died on the eighth day in his arms. Meanwhile, the boys heard on a small transistor radio they had found that the search for them had been called off. The authorities believed they had died.

In spite of severe rationing, it was clear that if they were not rescued, they would die, and they came to the grim realization that, to survive, they would have to eat the flesh of the dead. Of the ten bodies in the makeshift morgue - basically just corpses stretched out in the snow, preserved by the bitter cold - they agreed to leave three untouched (relatives of those still living); from the rest, the survivors cut bits of flesh and choked it down. Those who at first refused to eat this nasty fare eventually succumbed, for there was really no other option. The protein helped strengthen the survivors, who began to plan how to get out of their unbearable situation.

From the beginning, parties went out to try to locate the tail of the plane, in order to get a battery that the surviving crew member had told them they could use to activate the radio and call for help. The first expedition failed, as the members were weak and malnourished; but subsequent forays located the bodies of six passengers and crew who had fallen out of the tail, as well as the tail and the battery, which was too heavy to lift. They then tried bringing the radio to the battery, but couldn't make it work.

After 17 days on the mountain, as everyone was huddled together to sleep, an avalanche swept down the mountain, crashed through the barrier of suitcases and seats, and buried all but four of them alive. Two of those unburied had broken legs and were in hammocks that others had rigged up to allow them to sleep easier; the other two were able bodied and frantically dug the snow from around the faces of their friends. Eight more people died that night; now only nineteen remained. A second avalanche swept over them later that night, burying the fuselage but otherwise leaving them unharmed. When they tunneled out the next morning they found they were in the midst of a raging storm, and they remained trapped for another three days before the storm passed and they could dig themselves out, pulling out the bodies of their dead friends.

Finally, after two months had passed, as the weather was warming, three of the survivors - Parrado, Canessa, and Antonio Vizintin - set out to the west, where they thought Chile was, bringing with them a sleeping bag they had made from the plane's insulation and some of their grisly rations. They were not well prepared for the long climb through the mountains, but they suspected that if they did not find their way out, they would all die there. Already they were running out of corpses to eat. After three days they realized that they were still a long way from passing the mountains; they sent Vizintin back and Parrado and Canessa pressed on. Seven days later the two young men (Parrado was only 19) saw green fields; it seemed like a whole other world. They saw a rancher, Sergio Catalan, across the river tending his cattle, and they screamed and cried for help. He promised to return the next day, and when they woke the next morning, there he was on the opposite bank. He wrote a note and tied it to a rock, asking them what they needed; they wrote about their plight and threw it back. He tossed them some bread, rode off, and soon another rancher that Catalan had alerted approached them and took them on horseback to a small cabin. Catalan had gone to let the authorities know about the young men. It was 70 days since the crash.

Back at the crash site, the young men heard via the radio that Parrado and Canessa had succeeded. They cleaned themselves up as best they could and laughed hysterically when two helicopters came. Eight of the survivors were airlifted out that day, but weather conditions postponed the rescue of the rest until the next day. Finally, however, and just in time for Christmas, 16 survivors were reunited with their families after a harrowing ordeal. They had survived.

They had survived, but 29 had died. Because not all their bodies were intact, it was decided to leave them on the mountain, burying them on a peak near the crash site. The grave was covered with rocks and topped with an iron cross. The remains of the fuselage were burned.

This amazing story was a sensation at the time and was eventually made into a best-selling book by Piers Paul Read, which formed the basis for a 1993 movie starring Ethan Hawke as Nando. The real Nando and two other survivors visited the location in the Canadian Rockies and were amazed - and a little horrified - with the realism of the set. Though the story as related in the movie is somewhat fictionalized, the drama and horror of their plight is well captured, which deals sensitively with the gruesome aspects of the story. The film has a strong spiritual tone, which might strike more cynical viewers as hokey, but a documentary made 20 years later, which was included in the DVD of the movie which I saw recently, confirmed that for these young impressionable Catholic men, there was something deeply spiritual about going through such an intense and frightening experience and living. For some, eating the bodies of the dead was like a communion.

The documentary also reveals that they all still live in the same wealthy suburb of Carrasco where they grew up, and see each other, as well as the families of their deceased friends, very often. Interviews reveal that some of them were strengthened by their ordeal, others deeply scarred. Though several of them speak frankly to the camera, they reveal that in their hometown no one asks about the cannibalism, no one speaks of that: it is a deep bond they share with each other, no one else.

These are the 45 people who boarded that plane, those who survived marked in italics:

Col. Julio César Ferradas (pilot)
Lt. Col. Dante Hector Lagurara (co-pilot)
Lt. Ramon Martínez (navigator)
Cpl. Carlos Roque (mechanic)
Cpl. Ovidio Joaquin Ramírez (steward)

Rugby team
Francisco Abal
Roberto Canessa
Gaston Costemalle
Roy Harley
Alexis Hounié
Guido Magri
Julio Martínez-Lamas
Daniel Maspons
Gustavo Nicolich
Arturo Nogueira
Fernando ("Nando) Parrado
Marcelo Perez
Enrique Platero
Daniel Shaw
Antonio ("Tintin") Vizintín
Gustavo Zerbino

Other passengers
Jose Pedro Algorta
Alfredo "Pancho" Delgado
Rafael Echavarren
Daniel Fernández
Roberto "Bobby" Francois
Jose Luis "Coche" Inciarte
Alvaro Mangino
Graziela Mariani
Felipe Maquirriain
Juan Carlos Menéndez
Javier Methol
Liliana Methol
Dr. Francisco Nicola
Esther Nicola
Carlos "Carlitos" Páez
Eugenia Parrado
Susana Parrado
Ramán "Moncho" Sabella
Adolfo "Fito" Strauch
Eduardo Strauch
Diego Storm
Numa Turcatti
Carlos Valeta
Fernando Vázquez

http://members.aol.com/porkinsr6/alive.html was a major source for this write-up, as was the movie, which I just saw.