Ever since reading it back in March, I’ve been completely obsessed with Piers Paul Read’s amazing book “ALIVE”.
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, their friends, 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 29 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 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.
On Friday the 13th of October, 1972, a Uruguayan Air Force twin turboprop Fairchild FH-227D was flying over the Andes carrying Old Christians Club rugby union team from Montevideo, Uruguay, to play a match in Santiago, Chile. The trip had begun the day before, when the Fairchild departed from Carrasco International Airport, but inclement mountain weather forced an overnight stop in Mendoza. At the Fairchild’s ceiling of 29,500 feet (9,000 m), the plane could not fly directly from Mendoza, over the Andes, to Santiago, in large part because of the weather. Instead, the pilots had to fly south from Mendoza parallel to the Andes, then turn west towards the mountains, fly through a low pass (Planchon), cross the mountains and emerge on the Chilean side of the Andes south of Curico before finally turning north and initiating descent to Santiago after passing Curico.
After resuming the flight on the afternoon of October 13, the plane was soon flying through the pass in the mountains. The pilot then notified air controllers in Santiago that he was over Curicó, Chile, and was cleared to descend. That proved to be a fatal error. Since the pass was covered by the clouds, the pilots had to rely on the usual time required to cross the pass (dead reckoning). However, they failed to take into account strong headwinds that slowed the plane and increased the time required to complete the crossing. They were not as far west as they thought they were and, as a result, the turn and descent were initiated too soon, before the plane had passed through the mountains, leading to a controlled flight into terrain.
Dipping into the cloud cover while still over the mountains, the Fairchild soon crashed on an unnamed peak (later called Cerro Seler, also known as Glaciar de las Lágrimas or Glacier of Tears), located between Cerro Sosneado and Volcán Tinguiririca, straddling the remote mountainous border between Chile and Argentina. The plane clipped the peak at 4,200 metres (13,800 ft), neatly severing the right wing, which was thrown back with such force that it cut off the vertical stabilizer, leaving a gaping hole in the rear of the fuselage. The plane then clipped a second peak which severed the left wing and left the plane as just a fuselage flying through the air. One of the propellers sliced through the fuselage as the wing it was attached to was severed. The fuselage hit the ground and slid down a steep mountain slope before finally coming to rest in a snow bank. The location of the crash site is 34°45′54″S 70°17′11″W / 34.765°S 70.28639°W / -34.765; -70.28639, in the Argentine municipality of Malargüe (Malargüe Department, Mendoza Province).
Of the 45 people on the plane, 12 died in the crash or shortly thereafter; another five had died by the next morning, and one more succumbed to injuries on the eighth day. The remaining 27 faced severe difficulties in surviving high in the freezing mountains. Many had suffered injuries from the crash, including broken legs from the aircraft’s seats piling together. The survivors lacked equipment such as cold-weather clothing and footwear suitable for the area, mountaineering goggles to prevent snow blindness (although one of the eventual survivors, 24-year-old Adolfo “Fito” Strauch, devised a couple of sunglasses by using the sun visors in the pilot’s cabin which helped protect their eyes from the sun). They lacked any kind of medical supplies, and the death of Dr. Francisco Nicola left a first and a second year medical students who had survived the crash in charge to improvise splints and braces with salvaged parts of what remained of the aircraft.
Search parties from three countries looked for the missing plane. However, since the plane was white, it blended in with the snow, making it virtually invisible from the sky. The initial search was cancelled after eight days. The survivors of the crash had found a small transistor radio on the plane and Roy Harley first heard the news that the search was cancelled on their 11th day on the mountain. Piers Paul Read in Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors (a text based upon interviews with the survivors) described the moments after this discovery
The others who had clustered around Roy, upon hearing the news, began to sob and pray, all except Parrado, who looked calmly up the mountains which rose to the west. Gustavo [Coco] Nicolich came out of the plane and, seeing their faces, knew what they had heard… [Nicolich] climbed through the hole in the wall of suitcases and rugby shirts, crouched at the mouth of the dim tunnel, and looked at the mournful faces which were turned towards him. ‘Hey boys,’ he shouted, ‘there’s some good news! We just heard on the radio. They’ve called off the search.’ Inside the crowded plane there was silence. As the hopelessness of their predicament enveloped them, they wept. ‘Why the hell is that good news?’ Paez shouted angrily at Nicolich. ‘Because it means,’ [Nicolich] said, ‘that we’re going to get out of here on our own.’ The courage of this one boy prevented a flood of total despair
The survivors had a small amount of food: a few chocolate bars, 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.
Eight of the initial survivors subsequently died on the morning of October 29 when an avalanche cascaded down on them as they slept in the fuselage. For three days they survived in an appallingly confined space since the plane was buried under several feet of snow. Nando Parrado was able to poke a hole in the roof of the fuselage with a metal pole, providing ventilation. Among the dead was Liliana Methol, wife of survivor Javier Methol. She was the last surviving female passenger to die.
Before the avalanche, a few of the survivors became insistent that their only means of survival would be to climb over the mountains themselves and search for help. Because of the co-pilot’s assertion that the plane had passed Curico, the group assumed that the Chilean countryside was just a few miles away to the west. In actuality, the plane had crashed inside Argentina, and unknown to the survivors, just 18 miles west of an abandoned hotel named the Hotel Termas Sosneado. Several brief expeditions were made in the immediate vicinity of the plane in the first few weeks after the crash, but the expeditionaries found that a combination of altitude sickness, dehydration, snow blindness, malnourishment and the extreme cold of the nights made climbing any significant distance an impossible task.
Therefore it was decided that a group of expeditionaries would be chosen, and then allocated the most rations of food and the warmest of clothes, and spared the daily manual labor around the crash site that was essential for the group’s survival, so that they might build their strength. Although several survivors were determined to be on the expedition team no matter what, including Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa, one of the two medical students, others were less willing or unsure of their ability to withstand such a physically exhausting ordeal. From the rest of the passengers, Numa Turcatti and Antonio Vizintin were chosen to accompany Canessa and Parrado. At Canessa’s urging, the expeditionaries waited nearly seven weeks, to allow for the arrival of spring, and with it higher temperatures.
Although the expeditionaries were hoping to get to Chile, a large mountain lay due west of the crash site, blocking any effort made to walk in that direction. Therefore the expeditionaries initially headed east, hoping that at some point the valley that they were in would do a U-turn and allow them to start walking west. After several hours of walking east, the trio unexpectedly found the tail section of the plane, which was still largely intact. Within and surrounding the tail were numerous suitcases that had belonged to the passengers, containing cigarettes, candy, clean clothing and even some comic books. The group decided to camp there that night inside the tail section, and continue east the next morning. However, on the second night of the expedition, which was their first night sleeping outside exposed to the elements, the group nearly froze to death. After some debate the next morning, they decided that it would be wiser to return to the tail, remove the plane’s batteries and bring them back to the fuselage so that they might power up the radio and make an SOS call to Santiago for help.
Upon returning to the tail, the trio found that the batteries were too heavy to take back to the fuselage, which lay uphill from the tail section, and they decided instead that the most appropriate course of action would be to return to the fuselage and disconnect the radio system from the plane’s electrical mainframe, take it back to the tail, connect it to the batteries, and call for help from there. One of the other team members, Roy Harley, was an amateur electronics enthusiast, and they recruited his help in the endeavor. Unknown to any of the team members, was the fact that the plane’s electrical system used AC, while the batteries in the tail naturally produced DC, making the plan futile from the beginning. After several days of trying to make the radio work back at the tail, the expeditionaries finally gave up, returning to the fuselage with the knowledge that they would in fact have to climb out of the mountains if they were to stand any hope of being rescued.
THE SLEEPING BAG
It was now apparent that the only way out was to climb over the mountains to the west. However, they also realized that unless they found a way to survive the freezing temperature of the nights, a trek was impossible. It was at this point that the idea for a sleeping bag was raised.
In his book, Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home, Nando Parrado would comment 34 years later upon the making of the sleeping bag:
The second challenge would be to protect ourselves from exposure, especially after sundown. At this time of year we could expect daytime temperatures well above freezing, but the nights were still cold enough to kill us, and we knew now that we couldn’t expect to find shelter on the open slopes. We needed a way to survive the long nights without freezing, and the quilted batts of insulation we’d taken from the tail section gave us our solution … as we brainstormed about the trip, we realized we could sew the patches together to create a large warm quilt. Then we realized that by folding the quilt in half and stitching the seams together, we could create an insulated sleeping bag large enough for all three expeditionaries to sleep in. With the warmth of three bodies trapped by the insulating cloth, we might be able to weather the coldest nights. Carlitos [Páez] took on the challenge. His mother had taught him to sew when he was a boy, and with the needles and thread from the sewing kit found in his mother’s cosmetic case, he began to work … to speed the progress, Carlitos taught others to sew, and we all took our turns … Coche [Inciarte], Gustavo [Zerbino], and Fito [Strauch] turned out to be our best and fastest tailors.
After the sleeping bag was completed and another survivor, Numa Turcatti, died from his injuries, the hesitant Canessa was finally persuaded to set out, and the three expeditionaries took to the mountain on December 12.
On 12 December 1972, some two months after the crash, Parrado, Canessa and Vizintín began their trek up the mountain. Parrado took the lead, and often had to be called to slow down, though the thin oxygen made it difficult for all of them. It was still bitterly cold but the sleeping bag allowed them to live through the nights. In the film Stranded Canessa called the first night during the ascension, where they had difficulty finding a place to use the sleeping bag, the worst night of his life.
On the third day of the trek, Parrado reached the top of the mountain before the other two expeditionaries. Stretched before him as far as the eye could see were more mountains. In fact, he had just climbed one of the mountains (as high as 4,650 metres (15,260 ft)) which forms the border between Argentina and Chile, meaning that they were still tens of kilometers from the red valley of Chile. However, after spying a small “Y” in the distance, he gauged that a way out of the mountains must lie beyond, and refused to give up hope. Knowing that the hike would take more energy than they’d originally planned for, Parrado and Canessa sent Vizintín back to the crash site, as they were rapidly running out of rations. Since the return was entirely downhill, it only took him one hour to get back to the fuselage using a makeshift sled.
Parrado and Canessa hiked for several more days. First, they were able to actually reach the narrow valley that Parrado had seen on the top of the mountain, where they found the bed of Rio Azufre. They followed the river and finally reached the end of the snowline. Gradually, there appeared more and more signs of human presence, first some signs of camping, and finally on the ninth day, some cows. When they rested that evening, they were very tired and Canessa seemed unable to proceed further. As Parrado was gathering wood to build a fire, Canessa noticed what looked like a man on a horse at the other side of the river, and yelled at the near-sighted Parrado to run down to the banks. At first it seemed that Canessa had been imagining the man on the horse, but eventually they saw three men on horseback. Divided by a river, Nando and Canessa tried to convey their situation, but the noise of the river made communication difficult.
One of the horsemen, a Chilean Huaso named Sergio Catalan, shouted “tomorrow.” They knew at this point they would be saved and settled to sleep by the river. During the evening dinner, Sergio Catalan discussed what he had seen with the other huasos who were staying in a little summer ranch called Los Maitenes. Someone mentioned that several weeks before, the father of Carlos Paez, who was desperately searching for any possible news about the plane, had asked them about the Andes crash. However, the huasos could not imagine that someone could still be alive. The next day Catalan took some loaves of bread and went back to the river bank. There he found the two men still on the other side of the river, on their knees and asking for help. Catalan threw them the bread loaves, which they immediately ate, and a pen and paper tied to a rock. Parrado wrote a note telling about the plane crash and asking for help. Then he tied the paper to a rock and threw it back to Catalan, who read it and gave the boys a sign that he understood.
Catalan rode on horseback for many hours westwards to bring help. During the trip he saw another huaso on the south side of Rio Azufre and asked him to reach the boys and to bring them to Los Maitenes. Instead, he followed the river till the cross with Rio Tinguiririca, where after passing a bridge he was able to reach the narrow route that linked the village of Puente Negro to the holiday resort of Termas del Flaco. Here he was able to stop a truck and reach the police station at Puente Negro, where the news was finally dispatched to the Army command in San Fernando and then to Santiago. Meanwhile, Parrado and Canessa were rescued and they reached Los Maitenes, where they were fed and allowed to rest.
The following morning the rescue expedition left Santiago, and after a stop in San Fernando, moved eastwards. Two helicopters had to fly in the fog, but reached a place near Los Maitenes just when Parrado and Canessa were passing on horseback while going to Puente Negro. Nando Parrado was recruited to fly back to the mountain in order to guide the helicopters to the remaining survivors. The news that people had survived the October 13 crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 had also leaked to the international press and a flood of reporters began to appear along the narrow route from Puente Negro to Termas del Flaco. The reporters hoped to be able to see and interview Parrado and Canessa about the crash and the following ordeal.
THE MOUNTAIN RESCUE
In the morning of the day when the rescue started, those remaining at the crash site heard on their radio that Parrado and Canessa had been successful in finding help and that afternoon, 22 December 1972, two helicopters carrying search and rescue climbers arrived. However, the expedition (with Parrado onboard) was not able to reach the crash site until the afternoon, when it is very difficult to fly in the Andes. In fact the weather was very bad and the two helicopters were able to take only half of the survivors. They departed, leaving the rescue team and remaining survivors at the crash site to once again sleep in the fuselage, until a second expedition with helicopters could arrive the following morning. The second expedition arrived at daybreak on 23 December and all 16 survivors were rescued. All of the survivors were taken to hospitals in Santiago and treated for altitude sickness, dehydration, frostbite, broken bones, scurvy and malnutrition.
October 12 (Thu)
Crew 5, Passengers 40.
October 13 (Fri)
7 people missing (Martinez, Ramirez, Costemalle, Hounié, Magri, Shaw, Valeta), 5 people dead (Ferradas, F. Nicola, E. Nicola, E. Parrado, Vazquez). Alive: 33
October 14 (Sat)
Five people died (Lagurara, Abal, Mariani, Maquirriain, Martinez-Lamas) Dead: 10, missing: 7, alive: 28
October 21 (Sat)
Susana “Susy” Parrado died. Dead: 11, missing: 7, alive: 27
October 24 (Tue)
missing 6 people found dead (Carlos Valeta not found). Dead: 17, missing: 1, alive: 27
October 29 (Sun)
8 people died in an avalanche (Perez, Platero, L. Methol, Nicolich, Maspons, Menendez, Storm, Roque). Dead: 26, alive: 19
November 15 (Wed)
Arturo Nogueira died. (dead: 27, alive: 18)
November 18 (Sat)
Rafael Echavarren died. (dead: 28, alive: 17)
December 12 (Mon)
Numa Turcatti died. (dead: 29, alive: 16)
December 20 (Wed)
Parrado and Canessa encounter Sergio Catalan.
December 21 (Thu)
Parrado and Canessa rescued.
December 22 (Fri)
6 people rescued.
December 23 (Sat)
8 people rescued. 16 people alive.
December 26 (Tue)
Front page of the Santiago newspaper El Mercurio reports that all survivors resorted to cannibalism.
Piers Paul Read’s book “ALIVE” is one of the greatest stories of Human survival that I’ve ever read and I’ve started to re-read it.
I’m highly recommending it to you. It’s terrifying and grim as well as inspiring. Two young guys climbed out of The Andes wearing rugby boots!
I still can’t believe they did that and lived to talk about it!
In 1993, the story was made into a big glossy Hollywood movie which leaves a lot out and in general, does a pretty poor job of telling the story so get the book, read it, and be AMAZED!
…Only, don’t read it like I did.
DON’T read it on a plane!