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The Andes Survivors
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As far as the outside world was concerned they were dead. Stranded in a wrecked fuselage high amid the Andes, the members of a Uruguayan rugby club had a choice: they could starve to death or eat the flesh of friends whose bodies lay scattered in the snow. Sixteen chose to live, and their tale is as heroic as it is bizarre.
On 12 October 1972, 45 Uruguayans left Montevideo for Santiago in a twin-engined Fairchild. Most were young men, and members of the Old Christians rugby club. Their team had finished second in the Uruguayan league and was now off to play a match in Chile. After the game there would be a few days of skiing in a Chilean mountain resort. Some members had mothers and sisters with them. They were looking forward to the holiday.
The plane belonged to the Uruguayan Air Force, and the flight was delayed because of bad weather in the Andes. But on 13 October, the aircraft set off again. High above the mountains, however, a blizzard set in. The 'plane hit an air pocket, jolted and went into a dive with its engines screaming. And for months which followed, all that the world knew was that the aircraft had disappeared.
On board the plane, however, an appalling ordeal was beginning. The aircraft plunged some 3,000 feet in a matter of seconds. Snowy crags were glimpsed not six feet from the wing tip; and then the plane dived again, smashing against a mountainside, its tailplane wrenched off to career down the slope.
'People who failed to get their seat belts fastened were simply swept out of the hole left when the tail broke off,' a survivor named Inciarte later recalled in a New York Times report from which much of the following material is drawn. 'Blood spurted all over me, people were screaming and I could smell fuel and the cold air gushing in from outside, when suddenly with one big bump we came to rest.'
The aircraft lay amid mountains rising to 21,000 feet, in a place as desolate and remote as an Antarctic waste. The pilot was dead in the wreckage. Sixteen others lay dead or dying around, including all the women passengers.
Staggering to their feet amid the carnage, the 28 survivors felt the bite of the sub-zero temperature. But at least they did not perish overnight through the cold, for they had with them the warm skiing clothes they had brought for the projected holiday. Those clothes, and the fitness of the young club members, were to prove crucial in the months of suffering which followed.
There was also a transistor radio, though it had no batteries. The only surviving member of the aircrew declared that batteries were stored in the tailplane. It was two miles away. An expedition was mounted to retrieve them, but they were found to be too heavy to move. Instead, the radio was taken to the tailplane and attempts were made to rig up a transmitter for signalling distress. After many days of struggling with numb fingers, however, the attempts failed. Nonetheless, it did prove possible to set up a receiver, and the group was able to listen to radio broadcasts from Montevideo.
Powerless to guide or inform, the Andes survivors heard of search parties and rescue squads scouring the mountains for signs of the vanished aircraft. With every day that passed, the hopes of the searchers grew fainter. And at midday on 21 October, the survivors heard the news they were dreading. The search parties had been called off. The Chilean Mountain Rescue Service announced that attempts to find the plane would resume during the spring thaw. No one, it was thought, could have survived in that temperature and in that terrain.
And yet the group had survived. At one end of the wrecked fuselage, the partially destroyed cabin offered some insulation against the bitter cold. At the open end, an assortment of partitions was erected. The aircraft had settled into the snow up to window level. It was hardly snug - but it sheltered the group against the worst of the elements.
Covers were ripped from seats and converted into blankets. Some people slept in hammocks composed of cable and cord. Others slept on metal plates laid at an angle against the wall; they developed sores on the backs of their necks from lying night after night in the same position.
They slept as close to each other as they could to keep warm, and the restless tossing of one might graze the chapped limbs of another. But there were few serious quarrels. Team spirit, as much as fitness, played its part in sustaining the rugby club members during their long ordeal.
At first, the survivors had tried to eat snow for water. Severe cramps ensued from the cold. Later, aluminum sheets from the plane were propped up to provide a solar melting device. Snow piled up on top warmed and dripped into bottles placed underneath.
Such solid food as had been stored in the aircraft was gradually exhausted however. And as the days passed, and the pangs of hunger grew stronger, the decision to consume flesh from the bodies of dead companions was taken.
The choice was not easy to make. In Catholics, a sense of sacrilege is deeply felt. But so too is a sense of the sacrament. The group shared the flesh of their companions as Christ Himself had shared His body.
Not everyone chose to accept the decision. One survivor, Numa Turcatti, considered the toughest and fittest of the group, suddenly lost heart in the business. He was given food but he hid it and threw it away when the others were not looking. Turcatti simply let himself die.
But those who had determined to survive at all cost took precautions as sensible as those applied to the fitting out of the fuselage. Strips of flesh were cut up and left to hang until ready for consumption. A rationing system ensured that each corpse should last the survivors five days. Nobody feasted with relish. The flesh was consumed in small pellets to minimize the ordeal of chewing. The madness of starvation remained close at hand, and everyone experienced hallucinatory dreams of fantastic banquets. Once, the survivors drew up a list of the best restaurants in Montevideo to while away the hours of numb despair.
On 29 October a fresh disaster struck, further reducing the group's number. An avalanche bore down on the aircraft, wrecking their living quarters as tons of compacted snow churned through the fuselage. Nine lives were lost.
From the outset, group members had made small foraging expeditions when taking the daily trips to the radio in the tailplane. All movement was slow in the thin air, but sometimes an excursion brought a reward. One big find was a packet of 170 cigarettes fallen from the plane as it burst apart. After the avalanche, however, the survivors felt more strongly than ever how precarious their existence was; it was clear that someone should at least try to reach help.
Three men were selected for the expedition. To equip them for the intense cold, the group pried felt covers from heating tubes in the aircraft, fashioning them into bands to be wrapped round the men's bodies.
Of the three who set out, one turned back after three days in order to save rations. The two who continued were Parrado, a burly rugby forward, and Canessa, a third-year medical student who had become the group's doctor. On leaving, Parrado had promised: 'Before Christmas I will have you out of here.'
The feat which the two men accomplished was an epic of endurance. With their improvised clothing, they scaled heights which had not been attempted before by fully equipped mountaineers. 'We had no idea where we were going,' Canessa recalled, 'but with the aircraft compass we had to get there. Chile was to the west and we would go there whatever happened. So we started those unending days of travel - intense cold at night, intolerable heat at midday. We rationed the water and food and I said: "If we don't walk so far, then no food for us.'"
It was Parrado, however, whose extraordinary stamina and determination proved the most enduring. Towards the end he was carrying his companion.
At 9 p.m. on 20 December, a 44-year-old cattle hand from San Fernando was tending his herds in the foothills of the Andes. He heard faint cries from across the River Tinguiririca, a rushing torrent which carves its way through the mountains' lower slopes. On the other side he saw what seemed to be two tramps. The roaring water drowned the men's shouting — he had his cattle to look after and night was falling. He shouted that he would return the next day.
The following morning, the tramps were still there, and still the torrent muffled their cries. The cattle hand threw over a piece of paper and a pencil attached to a stone. The message which was hurled back read:
'I come from the plane that crashed in the mountains. I am Uruguayan. We have been walking like this for 10 days. My friend is injured. There are still 14 injured people on the plane. We have to get out of here quickly because we have nothing to eat. We can walk no more.'
The cattle hand rushed off to find help, but it was midnight before patrols reached the pair.
Meanwhile there was a jubilation in the wrecked fuselage. The survivors had learned by radio that Parrado and Canessa had got through. The arduous discipline of maintaining the aircraft had been abandoned. The last remaining cigarettes had been rolled into huge cigars.
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By the afternoon of 22 December, most of the survivors had been rescued by teams of mountaineers supported by helicopters. Those who first reached the scene were astonished to find human limbs scattered outside the aircraft, and strips of flesh hanging inside ready for consumption. Neither Parrado nor Canessa had spoken of what had passed in the mountains. Indeed, the earliest press reports described the survivors as having lived on lichens. The experts, however, knew that this could not be true. The survivors were too fit and too lucid. The full story emerged only later.
Bad weather prevented the last batch of survivors from being taken off the mountain until 23 December- the day after their companions. It is not hard to imagine the mixed euphoria and anxiety of the little group huddled in the lonely hulk during that last night in the Andes. All were freed nevertheless.
In total, the Uruguayans' ordeal had lasted 70 days. But Parrado had kept to his promise - he got them all out by Christmas.