Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 was a chartered flight carrying 45 people, including a rugby union team, their friends, family and associates.
This has to go down as one of the greatest tragedies in aviation history, not for the scale of death, but for the hardships some of the survivors came to endure.
On 13 October 1972, in an incident known as the Andes flight disaster, flight 571 crash landed at an altitude of 3,600 metres (11,800 ft). Transporting the Old Christians Club rugby union team from Montevideo, Uruguay, to play a match in Santiago, Chile, the twin turboprop Fairchild FH-227D was forced to fly through atrocious weather.
Dipping under the thick cloud, the aircraft clipped a peak standing at 4,200 metres (13,800 ft), severing the right wing. The aircraft then clipped a second peak which severed the left wing and left just the fuselage flying through the air before crashing down a steep slope.
Eventually the aircraft came to a standstill. Of the 45 people on the aircraft, 12 died in the crash or shortly thereafter; another five the following morning, and one more on the eighth day. This left 27 survivors, many of which had broken legs.
The survivors had few supplies and were helplessly camouflaged by the snow. They did however find a small transistor radio on the aircraft, but this did little to improve morale. After 11 days they discovered that the search party had been called off, left alone, the feeling of helplessness must have been heart-wrenching.
Piers Paul Read’s Alive: The Story of the Andes 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 at the mountains which rose to the west. Gustavo [Coco] Nicolich came out of the aircraft 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 aircraft 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 group soon ran out of supplies as the options left open to them quickly dwindled. Nando Parrado describes the bleak situation:
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.
It was decided that a decision had to be made, a tough decision, but a necessary one; they found no alternative but to eat flesh from their dead friends in order to stay alive.
I will never forget that first incision nine days after the crash.
Roberto Canessa recalls in his new book, “I Had to Survive.”
We laid the thin strips of frozen flesh aside on a piece of sheet metal. Each of us finally consumed our piece when we could bear to. It was our final goodbye to innocence.
Unbelievably, this difficult decision was further complicated.
One night, which Canessa calls “the worst of my life,” an avalanche killed eight more.
The partly consumed bodies of those who had died in the initial crash were swept away, leaving those inside the fuselage next to the fresher bodies of their friends.
“That’s when I steeled myself to do what needed to be done: to use one of the bodies of the newly dead.”
“And so we took yet another step in the descent towards our ultimate indignity: to eat the body of the person lying next to us. Each of us would have to be stained with this blood if we were to keep the seed of life from withering.”
It’s hard for any of us to understand the mental trauma of taking this drastic step, within the context of survival this was the only choice.
After a gut-wrenching 72 days on their own, the final 16 survivors were finally rescued on Dec. 23, 1972. For the weeks that followed the crash, groups led expeditions looking for help. Eventually one party came across a Chilean farmer and the alarm was raised.
Canessa said he had struggled to cope with their actions, aware of the uneasy reception they might receive upon their return.
He recently talked to People magazine about seeing his mother and father after he was saved.
“I told her, ‘Mother, we had to eat our dead friends, and she said, That’s okay, that’s okay, sweetie.’
“But thank God, people were very receptive and very supportive and they consider what we did something we had to do so everything went very smoothly.”
Since the crash the survivors have remained together, attending charity rugby matches and telling the world about their inspiring story. In fact, they were asked to speak to the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped underground for 69 days back in 2010.