At first, none of the passengers panicked. Few even showed much concern. Most of the 45 on board were in their late teens and early twenties, members of a rugby team traveling from Uruguay to play a show in Chile, and they screamed and screamed when their chartered plane took off. struck turbulence over the Andes and fell several hundred feet. Then the plane struck a second air pocket and fell even more – and now, suddenly, as it fell under the cloud cover, passengers could see a mountain just ten or twenty feet away.
“Is it normal to fly so close?” One of them, Panchito Abal, asked his friend Nando Parrado.
“I don’t think so,” Parrado replied. Then his world turned black.
When he woke up, almost 48 hours had passed. It was Sunday, October 15, 1972, and the Uruguayan Air Force’s Fairchild F-227 crashed into a glacial valley in the Andes. The tail was missing – cut off from the rest of the fuselage by the right wing, which had sheared off after hitting the side of the mountain.
Why was it called “Miracle of the Andes”
Seven of those on board had been sucked out of the fuselage before the plane crashed; four others, including the pilot and Parrado’s mother, were killed on impact; and by the time Parrado regained consciousness, five others had also perished, including Parrado’s co-pilot and friend Abal.
There were now 29 survivors, alone in the freezing cold of the Andes, with no way to contact the outside world, and with their plane’s white fuselage almost invisible in the snow to would-be rescuers passing overhead. By the end of their ordeal, almost unfathomable 72 days after it began, the total number of survivors had dropped to 16.
It later emerged that those who survived had done so in part by eating their fallen comrades, and the reaction was initially a repulsion, but this soon gave way to an appreciation for courage and inventiveness that allowed them to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles. The heartbreaking experience became known as the “Miracle of the Andes”.
Famine prompts survivors to resort to cannibalism
Those who had the strength and the conscience to do so immediately began treating the most seriously injured. They piled up airplane seats for shelter in the shattered fuselage, where they huddled day and night. They used the aluminum in the seat backs to warm the snow and provide a constant flow of drinking water. But their rations were woefully insufficient.
One morning, Parrado wrote later, he found himself rocking a single chocolate-coated peanut: “The first day, I slowly sucked the chocolate from the peanut… The second day… I gently sucked the peanut for for hours, do a little nibbling every now and then. I did the same on the third day, and when I finally nibbled the peanut until nothing, there was no food left at all. ”
In the high altitude of the Andes, it was only a matter of time before their bodies completely burned down. They had only one choice. Using a shard of glass, some of the survivors sliced thin slices off the buttocks of one of the corpses and silently began to eat.
Some resisted this fateful step as long as they could, clinging to the hope of being rescued. But then they found a transistor radio, and a small group listened intently to a Chilean news bulletin announcing that official research efforts were over.
“Hey boys!” one of them shouted at the rest of the survivors. “There is good news. They canceled the search.
“Why the hell is this good news?” One shouted in response.
“Because it means we’re going to get out of here on our own.” “
Survivors leave for help
On the 18th day, disaster struck. An avalanche practically buried the fuselage, killing eight more and strengthening the belief of those who remained that they must now cross the mountains in search of civilization and rescue. It seemed like an impossible task: none of them was a mountaineer. all were horribly weak, and they did not have proper clothing or equipment. But there was no alternative. They made a sled, sewn together the material for a sleeping bag, and selected which ones would do the walk.
After weeks of preparation and failed efforts, the group – initially three, then two, to save resources – set out west towards Chile. Battling the cold and crippling altitude sickness, they sort of climbed the nearest peak, every 15,000 feet of it, and surveyed the surrounding area. They saw little but more mountains and a valley that crossed them. “We have been through so much,” said one of the climbers, Roberto Canessa, of Parrado, the other. “Now let’s die together.”
Desperately, uncertain, they made their way to the other side of the mountain and began to stumble along the glacier below, trying to force themselves but getting weaker by the day until, on December 18, they hear water gushing out. It was the mouth of a river that they began to follow. The next day they saw signs of humanity: a rusty can of soup, a horseshoe, cow dung, a herd of cows and then, finally, on the evening of December 20, a man on horseback from the across the river.
The next day, they were greeted by three more, and Parrado, unable to make himself heard above the roar of the river, attempted to explain who he was by mimicking a crashing plane. Even doing so, he was worried that the men would think he was a fool and leave.
Instead, one of the men tied a note to a rock and threw it across the river: “Tell me what you want. Parrado, with trembling hands, began to write: “I come from a plane which fell in the mountains. He explained that he and Canessa were weak and hungry, that 14 friends were left on the plane, and they were in desperate need of help quickly.
“When are you going to pick us up? Please. We can’t even walk. Where are we? “As he was about to throw the stone back, he stopped. Was he still strong enough? He gathered the last of his strength and threw the boulder with all his remaining strength and watched it bounce off the edge of the river and roll onto the shore. The man read it and raised his hands as if to say, “I understand.
Later that morning another man appeared on horseback, this time on their side of the river, and soon they were in a hut, fed on hot food. Soon the Chilean mounted police arrived and a pack of journalists.
Severe turbulence hit and rocked the helicopters, which screamed as they attempted to climb the mountain; as soon as they reached the summit, strong winds pushed them back, forcing them to go around the mountain and approach from the south, disorienting Parrado, who was afraid he would not be able to find his comrades. Then all of a sudden he saw black dots on the ice; both helicopters landed with the rotors still running, and took six of the survivors, disgorging a rescue team to deal with the rest overnight until their ordeal could also end the next morning.
In a hospital in San Fernando, Chile, Farrado was stripped of his dirty diapers and took a hot shower. As he was being wiped off with a towel, he saw himself in a mirror. He was skin on his bones, the shadow of the athletic young man he had been when he boarded the plane two and a half months earlier. But, with each breath he took, he spoke two words to himself, over and over again.
“I am alive. I am alive. I am alive.”