In 1972, a plane crashed into the Andes and the survivors resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. This is the story of the 16 survivors of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, which was chartered to take an amateur rugby team from Montevideo to Santiago, Chile, and ended up in tragedy (and miracle).
The accident and subsequent survival became known as the Andes flight disaster (Tragedia de los Andes) and the Miracle of the Andes (Milagro de los Andes).
It garnered international attention, especially after it was revealed that the survivors had resorted to cannibalism.
In 1972 the Old Christians Club chartered an Uruguayan Air Force plane to transport the team from Montevideo, Uruguay, to Santiago, Chile.
On October 12 the twin-engined Fairchild turboprop left Carrasco International Airport, carrying 5 crew members and 40 passengers. In addition to club members, friends, family, and others were also on board, having been recruited to help pay the cost of the plane.
Because of poor weather in the mountains, they were forced to stay overnight in Mendoza, Argentina, before departing at about 2:18 pm the following day.
Although Santiago lay to the west of Mendoza, the plane was not built to fly higher than approximately 22,500 feet (6,900 meters), so the pilots plotted a course south to the Pass of Planchón, where the aircraft could safely clear the Andes.
Approximately an hour after takeoff, the pilot notified air controllers that he was flying over the pass, and shortly thereafter he radioed that he had reached Curicó, Chile, some 110 miles (178 km) south of Santiago, and had turned north.
The pilot, however, had misjudged the location of the aircraft, which was still in the Andes. Unaware of the mistake, controllers cleared him to begin descending in preparation for landing.
As the aircraft descended, severe turbulence tossed the aircraft up and down. Nando Parrado recalled hitting a downdraft, causing the plane to drop several hundred feet and out of the clouds.
The rugby players joked about the turbulence at first, until some passengers saw that the aircraft was very close to the mountain. “That was probably the moment when the pilots saw the black ridge rising dead ahead.”
Roberto Canessa later said that he thought the pilot turned north too soon, and began the descent to Santiago while the aircraft was still high in the Andes.
Then, “he began to climb until the plane was nearly vertical and it began to stall and shake.” The aircraft ground collision alarm sounded, alarming all of the passengers.
At approximately 3:30 pm, the aircraft struck a mountain, losing its right wing and then its left wing before crashing into a remote valley of Argentina near the Chilean border.
A search for the missing plane was launched, but it soon became clear that the last reported location was incorrect. Rescue efforts shifted to the Andes, and the survivors later reported spotting several planes.
However, the snow-covered mountains made the detection of the white plane difficult. Furthermore, the harsh environment led many to believe that there were no survivors.
After eight days, the search was called off, though later rescue efforts were undertaken by family members.
The crash initially killed 12 people, leaving 33 survivors, although many were seriously or critically injured, with wounds including broken legs which had resulted from the aircraft’s seats collapsing forward against the luggage partition and the pilot’s cabin.
At an altitude of approximately 11,500 feet (3,500 meters), the group faced snow and freezing temperatures. While the plane’s fuselage was largely intact, it provided limited protection from the harsh elements.
The survivors had very little food: eight chocolate bars, a tin of mussels, three small jars of jam, a tin of almonds, a few dates, candies, dried plums, and several bottles of wine.
During the days following the crash, they divided this into small amounts to make their meager supply last as long as possible.
Even with this strict rationing, their food stock dwindled quickly. There was no natural vegetation and there were no animals on either the glacier or the nearby snow-covered mountain.
The food ran out after a week, and the group tried to eat parts of the airplane, such as the cotton inside the seats and the leather. They became sicker from eating these.
Knowing that rescue efforts had been called off and faced with starvation and death, those still alive agreed that, should they die, the others might consume their bodies to live. With no choice, the survivors ate the bodies of their dead friends.
Survivor Roberto Canessa described the decision to eat the pilots and their dead friends and family members:
Our common goal was to survive – but what we lacked was food. We had long since run out of the meager pickings we’d found on the plane, and there was no vegetation or animal life to be found.
After just a few days, we were feeling the sensation of our own bodies consuming themselves just to remain alive. Before long, we would become too weak to recover from starvation.
We knew the answer, but it was too terrible to contemplate. The bodies of our friends and teammates, preserved outside in the snow and ice, contained vital, life-giving protein that could help us survive. But could we do it?
For a long time, we agonized. I went out in the snow and prayed to God for guidance. Without His consent, I felt I would be violating the memory of my friends; that I would be stealing their souls.
We wondered whether we were going mad even to contemplate such a thing. Had we turned into brute savages? Or was this the only sane thing to do? Truly, we were pushing the limits of our fear.
The group survived by collectively deciding to eat flesh from the bodies of their dead comrades. This decision was not taken lightly, as most of the dead were classmates, close friends, or relatives.
Canessa used broken glass from the aircraft windshield as a cutting tool. He set the example by swallowing the first matchstick-sized strip of frozen flesh.
Later on, several others did the same. The next day, more survivors ate the meat offered to them, but a few refused or could not keep it down.
In his memoir, Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home (2006), Nando Parrado wrote about 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 aluminum, plastic, ice, and rock.
Parrado protected the corpses of his sister and mother, and they were never eaten. They dried the meat in the sun, which made it more palatable.
They were initially so revolted by the experience that they could eat only skin, muscle, and fat. When the supply of flesh was diminished, they also ate hearts, lungs, and even brains.
Seventeen days after the crash, near midnight on 29 October, an avalanche struck the aircraft containing the survivors as they slept. It filled the fuselage and killed eight people.
During this time, several survivors, the “expeditionaries,” had been surveying the area for an escape route. On December 12, with just 16 people still alive, three expeditionaries set out for help, though one later returned to the wreckage.
After a difficult trek, the other two men finally came across three herdsmen in the village of Los Maitenes, Chile, on December 20.
However, the Chileans were on the opposite side of a river, the noise of which made it hard to hear. The herdsmen indicated that they would return the following day.
Early the next morning, the Chileans reappeared, and the two groups communicated by writing notes on paper that they then wrapped around a rock and threw across the water.
The survivors’ initial note began, “I come from a plane that fell in the mountains.” The authorities were notified, and on December 22 two helicopters were sent to the wreckage.
The survivors slept a final night in the fuselage with the search and rescue party. The second flight of helicopters arrived the following morning at daybreak.
They carried the remaining survivors to hospitals in Santiago for evaluation. They were treated for a variety of conditions, including altitude sickness, dehydration, frostbite, broken bones, scurvy, and malnutrition. The last remaining survivors were rescued on 23 December 1972, more than two months after the crash.
Under normal circumstances, the search and rescue team would have brought back the remains of the dead for burial.
However, given the circumstances, including that the bodies were in Argentina, the Chilean rescuers left the bodies at the site until authorities could make the necessary decisions. The Chilean military photographed the bodies and mapped the area.
Upon being rescued, the survivors initially explained that they had eaten some cheese and other food they had carried with them, and then local plants and herbs.
They planned to discuss the details of how they survived, including their cannibalism, in private with their families. Rumors circulated in Montevideo immediately after the rescue that the survivors had killed some of the others for food.
On 23 December, news reports of cannibalism were published worldwide, except in Uruguay.
On 26 December, two pictures taken by members of Cuerpo de Socorro Andino (Andean Relief Corps) of a half-eaten human leg were printed on the front page of two Chilean newspapers, El Mercurio and La Tercera de la Hora, who reported that all survivors resorted to cannibalism.
The survivors held a press conference on 28 December at Stella Maris College in Montevideo, where they recounted the events of the past 72 days.
Alfredo Delgado spoke for the survivors. He compared their actions to that of Jesus Christ at the Last Supper, during which he gave his disciples the Eucharist.
The survivors received public backlash initially, but after they explained the pact the survivors had made to sacrifice their flesh if they died to help the others survive, the outcry diminished and the families were more understanding.
A Catholic priest heard the survivors’ confessions and told them that they were not damned for cannibalism (eating human flesh), given the in extremis nature of their survival situation.
The news of their survival and the actions required to live drew worldwide attention and grew into a media circus.
The ordeal was the basis for a number of books and films, including the best seller Alive (1974) by Piers Paul Read, which was adapted for the big screen in 1993. In addition, several survivors wrote books about the ordeal.
(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons / Britannica / Pinterest / nzherald.co.nz / NY Post / Daily Mail UK / Flickr).