On October 13, 1972, Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 left the city of Mendoza, Argentina carrying the Old Christians Rugby Club of Montevideo, Uruguay to a scheduled game in Santiago, Chile. To get there, the plane would have to fly over the snow-capped peaks of the Andes Mountains. And there were already signs that the flight wouldn’t be easy. The pilot had already made dozens of flights over the Andes. But his co-pilot, whom he was training and who would actually control the plane, hadn’t. Weather conditions over the mountains had grounded the plane shortly after it left Montevideo the day before. And as the plane crossed into the mountains, it was surrounded by dense clouds of mist.
With visibility near zero, the pilot had to rely on his instruments to get a sense of where he was. By mid-afternoon, the plane radioed the air traffic controllers in Santiago to tell them that he was almost to the town of CuricÃ³ and was about to descend into Santiago. Relying on the pilot’s report of his position, the tower granted permission to land. In fact, the plane was nowhere near Santiago. The pilot had misread his instruments. Instead of descending towards the airport as he thought, he was on a collision course with a mountain ridge.
As the plane neared the ridge, a sudden blast of wind knocked the plane into a temporary freefall of several hundred feet. The freefall brought them out of the clouds, and for the first time, the pilots could see what was in front of them. Unfortunately, all that was in front of the plane was a solid wall of rock. The pilot immediately pulled up and pushed the throttle down. The plane’s nose rose up at the last moment, allowing the pilots to avoid the ridge. But the sudden maneuver caused the engine to lose power, and the plane clipped the ridge.
The crash tore off the right wing and ripped the fuselage in half. Five people were lost with the tail section of the plane as it went tumbling down the side of the mountain. The front end pitched down the opposite slope. Next, the left wing was ripped off. The wing’s propellor immediately came loose, slicing through part of the fuselage. Two more people were sucked through the hole at the back of the fuselage as the front of the plane slid down the mountain like a sled.
The fuselage skidded down the slope for more than 2,000 feet before colliding with a snowbank. The force of the impact collapsed the cockpit like a soda can, killing one of the pilots. Several seats were ripped out of place and flew towards the front of the plane with the passengers still strapped in by their safety belts, killing several more. Of the 45 passengers that set off from Montevideo, only 33 were still alive after the crash. Many were critically injured. The rest were now trapped thousands of feet up in the Andes. They were alive, at least. But for how long?
Two of the rugby player on board, Gustavo Zerbino and Roberto Canessa, were medical students in Uruguay. They now used their training to help the injured passengers. Even just moments after the crash, they had to make difficult decisions. They couldn’t help everyone. Many of the passengers had compound fractures or had been impaled by pieces of the plane. The men did everything they could. But as the sun set, temperatures dropped. Another five people died during that first night from their injuries. Meanwhile, the authorities in Chile were preparing a rescue effort.
When the plane didn’t arrive as scheduled in Santiago, rescue planes were dispatched to look for survivors. Several of the planes even flew over the crash site. The survivors tried to signal the planes, but none could pick out the wreckage against the snow. Some of the survivors tried to spell out an SOS on top of the fuselage with lipstick they found in the luggage, but they quickly realized that they didn’t have enough. They also found a small transistor radio in the plane, which they used to monitor the search efforts, though they couldn’t use it to signal to anyone that they were still alive.
The survivors spent the next few days constructing a crude shelter from the wreckage of the plane. There they would have to endure the below-zero temperatures. Already weak and injured, the weather proved fatal to many of those still alive. To make things worse, the amount of food they’d been able to scrounge from the wreckage was limited. Even with strict rationing, it wouldn’t last them very long. As the days passed and every attempt to attract the attention of planes flying overhead failed, many began to worry that they’d never see home again.
At first, some tried to survive by eating the leather from the plane seats. But on the tenth day, some of the survivors made a pact. If they died, they decided, then the others should eat their flesh to survive. The decision was a hard one. Many of the members of the Old Christians Rugby club were deeply religious. The idea of eating the dead was only acceptable by viewing it as a type of communion. As Jesus had given his body up to be eaten by his disciples, the dead would now give up their body for the living.
On the eleventh day, some of the survivors gathered around the radio to hear the news that they’d been dreading. The search had been called off. With no sign of life, the rescuers had decided to wait until the snow melted in the spring and look for the bodies instead. The news dampened the spirits of the survivors. But one man, Gustavo Nicolich, stuck his head inside the shelter and declared, “Good news, they’ve called off the search.” When one of the other survivors understandably asked why that was good news, Nicolich replied cheerfully, “Because it means that we’re going to have to get out of here on our own.”
By now, most had come to accept the fact that they would only survive by eating the dead. Roberto Canessa took the lead. He didn’t relish the idea of eating his friends. But he knew that without food, all of them would die. And like many of the survivors, he felt better knowing that his friends would have wanted them to do whatever it took to live. So using a piece of broken glass, they cut strips of flesh off of the bodies and dried them in the sun.
Canessa swallowed only tiny pieces of flesh. It wasn’t a meal, it was an act of desperation. But his example gave the other survivors the strength they needed to do whatever it took to live. As the days went by, even this last source of food began to give out. When the muscle was gone, they had to turn to the brains and organs of the dead. It was clear that even eating the bodies wouldn’t be enough to keep them alive until they were finally found by rescuers. And starvation wasn’t the only danger on the mountain.
On October 29, a massive avalanche swept over the shelter. The snow buried the survivors, killing eight of them. Using a metal pole, one of the men was able to poke enough holes in the snow to keep the others from suffocating. But they wouldn’t be able to dig their way out of the snow for another two days. And when they did, they were greeted with a raging blizzard outside. They spent three days inside the snow before they managed to escape the wreckage of the fuselage. It was now obvious to Canessa that waiting would only mean death.
Their one chance of survival was for someone to trek over the mountains and find help. The most physically fit members of the rugby club, including Canessa, decided to try their luck. The group set out from the crash site to explore the surrounding area. But after nearly freezing to death, they decided to return to the crash site. Then they came up with the idea of making a sleeping bag from the insulation of the plane. The hope was that the bag would protect them from the freezing temperatures long enough to make it down the mountain.
On December 12, more than two months after the crash, three men, Roberto Canessa, Nando Parrado, and Antonio Vezintin set out on one final attempt to get help. They spent ten days trekking through deep snow and freezing cold as they made their way down the mountain. Finally, they encountered a Chilean rancher on horseback. And on December 22, rescue helicopters arrived to pick up the survivors. Only 16 were still alive. But their story soon became known as the “Miracle of the Andes,” and eventually inspired the movie Alive. Roberto Canessa later became a respected pediatric cardiologist and even a candidate for president. He felt that the experience hadn’t fundamentally changed who he was. “Every day when I look in the mirror, I thank God the same old jerk is still staring back at me,” he said.
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