I Am Alive: Surviving the Andes Plane Crash

Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, also known as the Andes flight disaster, and in South America as Miracle in the Andes (El Milagro de los Andes) was a chartered flight carrying 45 people, including a rugby team and their friends and family and associates that crashed in the Andes on October 13, 1972. More than a quarter of the passengers died in the crash, and several more quickly succumbed to cold and injury. Of the twenty-nine who were alive a few days after the accident, another eight were killed by an avalanche that swept over their shelter in the wreckage. The last of the 16 survivors were rescued on December 23, 1972, more than two months after the crash.

The survivors had little food and no source of heat in the harsh conditions at over 3,600 metres (11,800 ft) altitude. Faced with starvation and radio news reports that the search for them had been abandoned, the survivors fed on the dead passengers who had been preserved in the snow. Rescuers did not learn of the survivors until 72 days after the crash when passengers Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa, after a 10-day trek across the Andes, found a Chilean huaso, who gave them food and then alerted authorities about the existence of the other survivors.

Cannibalism – The survivors had a small amount of food: a few chocolate bars, other assorted snacks, and several bottles of wine. During the days following the crash they divided out this food in very small amounts so as not to exhaust their meager supply. Fito also devised a way to melt snow into water by using metal from the seats and placing snow on it. The snow then melted in the sun and dripped into empty wine bottles. Even with this strict rationing, their food stock dwindled quickly. Furthermore, there was no natural vegetation or animals on the snow-covered mountain. The group thus survived by collectively making a decision to eat flesh from the bodies of their dead comrades, beginning with the pilot. This decision was not taken lightly, as most were classmates or close friends. In his 2006 book, Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home, Nando Parrado comments on this decision:

At high altitude, the body’s caloric needs are astronomical … we were starving in earnest, with no hope of finding food, but our hunger soon grew so voracious that we searched anyway …again and again we scoured the fuselage in search of crumbs and morsels. We tried to eat strips of leather torn from pieces of luggage, though we knew that the chemicals they’d been treated with would do us more harm than good. We ripped open seat cushions hoping to find straw, but found only inedible upholstery foam … Again and again I came to the same conclusion: unless we wanted to eat the clothes we were wearing, there was nothing here but aluminium, plastic, ice, and rock.

All of the passengers were Roman Catholic. According to Read, some equated the act of cannibalism to the ritual of Holy Communion. Others initially had reservations, though after realizing that it was their only means of staying alive, changed their minds a few days later.

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