There were 45 people on board the Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 when it crashed in the Andean Mountain Range along the western edge of South America. The airline disaster and tale of endurance would come to shock the world when the survivors revealed the true extent of their cannibalism. Many people still can’t wrap their heads around what went on.
Since the Andes flight disaster of 1972, those who made it out of there have shared some harrowing details with the public about their unimaginable ordeal. Now in the seventies, the survivors meet once a year on the anniversary of their rescue date in order to celebrate their resilience and remember those that didn’t make it. But what they choose to do when they come together has garnered a mixed response.
The Uruguayan Rugby Team Needed To Fly For a Match
It all started when the Uruguayan Old Christians Club rugby team needed to travel for a match in 1972. They were athletes in their late teens or early 20s, looking to defeat Chile at a game on their home soil. But they weren’t planning on traveling there alone; they were also bringing their family members and close friends with them.
It was October 13th, 1972, when the rugby team, along with their family and friends, boarded the fateful plane. They were also joined by other passengers unrelated to the upcoming match and of course, the crew members, which totaled 45 people on the chartered Uruguayan Air Force twin turboprop Fairchild FH-227D aircraft.
Who Made It On the Plane?
Out of the 45 passengers on board the flight, five of them were the crew members. Colonel Julio César Ferradas was a trusted Air Force and commercial pilot with years of experience under his belt; he had accrued a total of 5,117 hours in flying time – that’s over 213 full 24-hour days! Aside from him, his co-pilot, Lieutenant-Colonel Dante Héctor Lagurara, also joined him on the flight.
The plane was actually under-filled with 10 extra seats to spare, which is why the rugby team’s family and friends accompanied them on the journey. They decided to join for a quick and convenient vacation break, as did Graziela Mariani, an unrelated passenger who was offered to join the flight at the last minute when one passenger canceled. She was traveling to Chile to attend her daughter’s wedding.
Poor Weather Conditions Hinted at Problems Ahead
Departing from Carrasco International Airport in Montevideo, Uruguay, and scheduled to land at Santiago International Airport, Chile, the plane took off as expected. However, once they arrived at Mendoza, Argentina, they had to make a stop due to poor weather conditions. All the passengers ended up staying the night to wait out the bad weather, eventually leaving in the aircraft again at 14:18 the next day.
After an hour in the air, the pilot reported to air traffic controllers that they were flying west over the Pass of Planchón, where they would be able to safely pass through the Andes Mountains. Not long after that, he reported that they had reached Curicó, Chile and were soon going to approach the airport in Santiago.
The Pilot Misjudged Their Location
Unfortunately, Pilot Julio César Ferradas had mistaken the actual location of the aircraft. He believed that they were around 110 miles south of Santiago and that they just needed to keep flying north. But in reality, the aircraft hadn’t left the Andes. Nonetheless, the air traffic controllers noted his location report and gave them clearance to begin the descent for landing.
Pilot Ferradas, therefore, began the descent while the aircraft was actually still in the Andes. There was a lot of turbulence, throwing the aircraft off balance, which was only made worse when they hit a downward current of air. That caused the plane to rapidly fall from the clouds and drop hundreds of feet in just a few seconds.
The Rugby Players’ Joked About the Turbulence
The rugby players, unaware of the severity of their situation, joked about the turbulence at first. But when one of the other passengers pointed out how close they were to a mountaintop, the mood changed. “This rapid descent dropped us below the clouds, and that was probably the moment when the pilots saw the black ridge rising dead ahead,” one of the survivors later recounted.
One of the survivors believed that the pilot had turned to fly north too soon, so when they began the descent, they were still in the Andes Mountains range. “He [the pilot] began to climb, until the plane was nearly vertical and it began to stall and shake,” recalled a survivor, before a loud alarm started to go off.
The Plane Crashed Into a Mountain Valley
Once the alarm sounded, the pilot tried to apply as much power in a last-ditch attempt to gain altitude, but to no avail. Passengers recalled the plane colliding with a mountain two or three times, which would have taken place around 15:30. “The Fairchild’s belly slammed into the ridge, and the damage was catastrophic.”
The survivor remembered: “First, the wings broke away. A split second later, the fuselage fractured along a line directly above my head, and the tail section fell away.” The collision had been catastrophic, crushing the nose of the plane “like a paper cup.”Considering how badly damaged the plane was, it was hardly surprising that there were so many casualties.
They Lost So Many People In the Collision
The tail had been separated from the plane with such force that it took the last two rows of the plane away with it, killing all of the unfortunate passengers who sat at the rear. As one survivor recalled, “In the passenger cabin, seats were ripped loose from the floor of the fuselage and hurled forward along with the people sitting in them, and dashed against the cockpit bulkhead.”
They continued: “Several passengers were crushed instantly as the rows of seats closed on them like the folds of an accordion, then tumbled into a mangled heap that filled the front of the fuselage.” Those that had survived the crash began the arduous task of pulling out the bodies from the plane wreckage.
Survivor Pulls His Mother and Sister Out From the Wreckage
While the survivors had much to be grateful for after having survived the crash, it wasn’t possible for them to appreciate it. One survivor, Nando Parrado, detailed the harrowing ordeal, stating, “As more and more passengers were pulled from the wreckage, the “doctors” were amazed to see that most of the survivors had suffered only minor injuries.”
The survivor continued: “My sister Susy was lying beside my mother’s dead body. She was conscious but incoherent, with blood streaming over her face. Roberto wiped the blood from Susy’s eyes and saw that it was coming from a superficial scalp wound, but he suspected, correctly, that she had suffered much more serious internal injuries.”
Searching For the Plane Was Nearly Impossible
A search for the lost aircraft began soon after the crash, but the rescue teams were at a huge disadvantage as the last reported location of the plane was incorrect. Once they figured this out, they moved their search onto the Andean Mountains, but this was going to be no easy feat.
Not only were the Andean Mountains difficult to fly through, but the white plane that had brought them there blended in perfectly with the snow-topped mountain landscape. It was nearly impossible to detect such a well-camouflaged aircraft or the survivors alike. Because of the extreme weather conditions, it was also believed that the survivors wouldn’t have been able to survive there for long.
Many Were Suffering From Severe or Fatal Injuries
After a fruitless search of eight days, it was called off. But that didn’t stop family members of those onboard the flight from looking for their loved ones. They didn’t know that 12 of the passengers onboard the flight had lost their lives immediately upon impact, leaving 33 survivors. But many of those survivors had suffered critical injuries.
Some of those injuries included severe head injuries or broken legs due to the aircraft seats being thrown toward the pilot’s cockpit. Interestingly, the aircraft’s main body remained more or less intact, but it was still of little help to the survivors who had to contend with the freezing temperatures and deep snow. They were stuck at an altitude of nearly 12,000 feet.
They Were Wearing Light Summer Clothes
The survivors couldn’t have been less prepared for the extreme weather conditions. There were no blankets, no gloves and no coats. They only had summer clothes on them, with a few of the passengers having brought light sports jackets or smart suit jackets. For the most part, they only had short sleeve shirts.
As a survivor recounted, “High-altitude cold is an aggressive and malevolent thing. It burns you and slashes you, it invades every cell of your body.” While the plane main body did prevent them from what would have been certain death, it was little comfort: “The air inside the plane was viciously frigid. I would lie in the dark for hours, my body shivering so hard that the muscles of my neck and shoulders were constantly in spasm.”
What Little Food They Found in the Wreckage
Faced with freezing temperatures, food was less of a concern at first. At the wreckage, they found a total of eight chocolate bars, one tin of mussels and one tin of almonds, some dates and prunes, three jam jars and some candy. They also found more than a few bottles of wine, but that provided little in the way of nutrition.
What small amounts of food the survivors had, they divided among themselves and attempted to ration them as much as possible – after all, there was no knowing how long they would have to wait for the rescue. “In the early days, hunger was not a great concern for us. The cold and the mental shock we had endured, along with the depression and fear we all were feeling, acted to curb our appetites.”
“The Greatest Threat We Faced Was Thirst”
“The cold was always our greatest agony, but at first the greatest threat we faced was thirst.” Despite sitting in a snow-covered landscape, turning the snow into water was no easy feat. The snow was clean and safe to drink, but they needed to come up with some way of melting the snow regularly to keep themselves hydrated.
Some survivors ventured out from the plane in the hopes of finding some collected water or natural stream close by, but their efforts proved futile. The survivor relayed: “The cold was always our greatest agony, but at first the greatest threat we faced was thirst. At altitude, the human body dehydrates five times faster than it does at sea level. We were sitting on a snow-packed glacier, surrounded by millions of tonnes of it. Our problem was making the snow drinkable.”
An Ingenius Way of Creating Water
At first, the survivors were able to collect drinking water that the plane had stored. But, unsurprisingly, the water supply ran out quickly. They devised a couple of ways to melt the snow, one of which included using their own body heat. They would collect the snow and keep it close to their skin or between their bodies and clothes to speed up the melting process.
One ingenious way that they were able to create water involved a slightly more complicated process. One of the survivors, Fito Strauch, discovered that they could use one of the metal sheets from the plane’s infrastructure and lay it flat with snow on top. The sun would melt the thin layer of snow and they tilted the metal sheet so that the water would drip directly into empty wine bottles.
The Food Ran Out After a Week
The survivors did everything they can to ration the little food they had. One of the survivors even managed to make one small chocolate-coated peanut last him three days. But regardless, the group ran out of food to eat after a week. In their desperation, they tried to eat materials they found on the plane, such as leather or cotton from the seats. But soon enough, they decided against it when they realized it was making them ill.
The landscape provided nothing in the way of food. Due to the harsh cold climate, there was no plant life and certainly no animals to hunt, even in the surrounding areas. The survivors were getting dangerously desperate to eat, and with temperatures dropping to −22 °F at night, it was more important than ever that their bodies had something to sustain them.
How They Combatted the Risk of Snow-blindness
There was another problem to contend with. The survivors were at risk of damaging their eyes because of the UV rays reflected off the snowy landscape. And because they were high in the mountains, the air was thinner and provided less UV ray protection. They were aware of the risk of snow blindness, but they lacked proper supplies to protect them from it.
The survivors were used to living by the sea, so living at the high altitude was entirely new. They had only three sunglasses between them to help against the snow blindness, with one survivor, Fito Strauch, making a makeshift pair of shades using a sun visor he found in the pilot cockpit, a bra strap and wire from a bra.
On Day Eight, Parrado’s Sister Succumbs to Her Injuries
Nando Parrado, one of the survivors who would come to play a significant role in the group’s rescue, had been in a coma for four days. He later described this unconscious state as an “absolute black hell,” which would only continue upon waking. As soon as he awoke from his four-day stupor, he discovered that his 19-year-old sister Susi had passed away after succumbing to her injuries, joining their mother who lost her life in the crash.
Not only that, but two of his best friends, Panchito and Guido, had also met their end. “In civilization, I might have broken down in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to get up, but I didn’t have the time for that,” he later recalled, adding, “My mind only allowed me to focus on fighting the cold, the hunger, the fear, the uncertainty.”
Realizing The Search Had Stopped
Found lodged between seats on the plane, the survivors discovered a little portable radio that hadn’t been ruined in the wreckage. One of the survivors managed to create a long antenna from some electrical cable on the plane, which allowed them to access the radio waves. But it gave them some bad news. On their 11th day stuck in the Andes, they discovered that the search had been abandoned.
One of the survivors remembered seeing everyone begin to “sob and pray,” all except Nando Parrado, “who looked calmly up at the mountains which rose to the west.” Survivor Gustavo Nicolich joked, “Hey boys! There’s some good news! We just heard on the radio. They’ve called off the search.” When an angry survivor questioned why he thought the news was good, he replied, “Because it means that we’re going to get out of here on our own.”
Choosing To Wait Out Until the Summer
The survivors heard that the search – for the bodies – would continue when the weather improved around June, which was still two months away. Parrado later wrote, “At that moment I almost panicked, but I remembered that panic kills you, and fear saves you.” He added, “Not knowing when you’re going to eat again is the most frightening fear a human being can have. It’s a terrible anxiety that you can’t understand until the body begins to self-consume.”
They decided to wait it out, as survivor Roberto Canessa later revealed: “Our common goal was to survive – but what we lacked was food… 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.”
Deciding To Do the Unthinkable
That’s when the survivors realized their only way to survive would be to consume those who didn’t survive the crash. One of the survivors, Roberto Canessa, later described how difficult it was to come to that decision, writing, “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?” Canessa continued, adding, “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.” Those who didn’t make it were for the most part the relatives and friends of those who survived, after all.
Roberto Canessa Was the First To Eat
Survivor Roberto Canessa was the first one to consume one of their comrades. But he wasn’t alone in believing it was their only choice, as Nando Parrado explained: “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.”
Canessa was able to use some broken glass from the windshield of the aircraft as a knife replacement. He made the first cut and took for himself a slither about the size of a matchstick. Soon after, others would follow his example and would offer it to the rest of the survivors, but not everyone was able to accept it.
The Survivor Were Overcome With Revulsion
While many others joined Canessa in consuming the bodies, not everyone could keep it down. Some tried and failed to stomach it as it was so revolting. At first, the survivors only found it possible to consume the skin, fat, and muscle tissue. But after a while, when no more was left, they had to consider other options.
They had one way of making the meat less revolting. They would lay out strips in the sun to dry, which supposedly helped with their nausea and disgust. There were two casualties who were off the menu, however – consuming Nando Parrado’s mother and sister was strictly not permitted.
Spiritual and Religious Justification
Interestingly, all of the survivors were Roman Catholic. Roberto Canessa elucidated their spiritual turmoil: “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.”
Some survivors told themselves that this act was not unlike the breaking of bread and drinking of wine in Holy Communion, in which the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, is consumed. Others quoted the Gospel of John: “No man hath greater love than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.” One devout couple was the last to join the eating, only doing so after being told to see it as the Lord’s Supper.
Parrado and Canessa Venture Out To Find Help
It’s thanks to the efforts of Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa that the remaining 16 survivors were rescued. They decided to embark on a journey to find help with no supplies or navigation. They had to manage the extreme cold and hike through challenging mountainous terrain. Ultimately, they traveled for 10 long days before seeing another person.
After an almost impossible 72 days lost in the Andean Mountains, they came across a Chilean peasant called Sergio Catalán. Catalán gave them food and water and offered them shelter before getting in touch with the authorities about the other survivors. Finally, on December 20, 1972, the search and rescue team found the remaining passengers and airlifted them to safety.
They Enjoy An Annual Memorial BBQ
All 16 survivors who made it out of the Andes are still alive today. They each reintegrated into society thanks to their loved ones and communities, but it wasn’t without difficulty. Many of them found it hard to deal with the trauma of what went on out there when they returned to normal life, having found that the experience changed their lives forever.
That being said, they all make an effort to meet every year on December 20th, the day they were rescued. But how they celebrate being alive and remembering those lost has some members of the public feeling queasy. They meet annually for a memorial barbecue, where they serve up some pork sausages and beef steaks.