Miracle in the Andes: An Unforgettable Survival Tale

Forty-seven years ago this month, an Uruguayan Air Force charter plane took off carrying the nation’s rugby team en route to a match in neighboring Chile.  The flight never made it.   Flying over the majestic Andes mountains, the inexperienced pilot ignored his instrument panel and crashed the plane into the side of a mountain.

The forward part of the fuselage containing the 45 team members, their coach, and the pilot and crew slid down the side of the mountain.   Seventeen of the passengers died from the crash’s impact.  The survivors, completely unfamiliar with the snow and cold, fashioned a makeshift shelter and desperately tried to survive the night hoping they might be rescued the next morning

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Instead, for the next 72 days, they huddled together and prayed for help.  They had virtually no food and at one point took to eating the stuffing from the seat cushions.

But as one after another succumbed to the elements, the survivors were forced to contemplate a more horrific solution: Cannibalism.

Together the survivors formed a pact:  Whoever died would become food for the others.

The story of Flight 571 and the so-called “Miracle of the Andes” is the stuff of legend now.    Several of the 16 survivors would eventually write books and the story of their ordeal also led to a 1993 movie that widely publicized their story and caused an international sensation.

How they managed to stay alive after rescuers had given up on them and they were left without protective clothing or food except for candy bars, peanuts and wine was beyond remarkable.

Eventually, as the number of survivors began to dwindle and the situation became dire, two men decided to set out on an expedition across the mountains in search of help.  It took them ten days on an 80-mile trek to reach the outskirts of settlements and to encounter human life. A Chilean mountaineer that made contact with them rode ten hours on horseback for help.

Search planes from three countries began looking for them and eventually, they found the remains of the white plane barely detectable against the snowy landscape.

One of the survivors’ main concerns was their belief that the public would judge them harshly for having engaged in cannibalism to survive.  They tried to conceal those facts from the public but word leaked out along with a photo of a partially consumed leg.

There was a brief backlash initially but it subsided once the public learned of the group’s pact.   A priest involved in the aftermath publicly forgave the survivors for engaging in anthropophagy (the eating of flesh), which is forbidden under Catholic religious doctrine.   At a public event, survivors compared their sharing of flesh to Christ’s Last Supper, adding to the mystical quality of their survival.

It’s hard to second-guess the decisions of those who lived through this ordeal, arguably the worst recorded survival experience in modern times.  The survivors of the crash might have tried to mark their plane or a nearby peak with bright clothing to aid the rescuers that first searched for them.  The survivors saw those planes but the planes failed to detect them.  A signal fire might have provided additional marking of the crash site.

The two survivors that decided to walk from the site in search of help went in the wrong direction, adding miles to their journey.  They might have read the terrain better.  In the end, they did decide to follow the valleys low in search of water, a decision they might have made earlier.  It may have saved additional lives.

The real lessons from the “Miracle in the Andes” were felt in the lives of the survivors.  In his 2006 memoir, Nando Parrado, who lost his mother and sister in the disaster, and was one of the two survivors who trekked in search of help, said the experience taught him the enduring value of human relationships.

They call the crash a “disaster story,” he noted in a 2015 interview, “but in fact, it was a love story.”

“I wanted to get home to my father. I tell young people all the time when you are alone and dying on the top of a mountain, you do not miss your car or your stereo — you miss the loving embrace of your family.”

Another survivor, Roberto Canessa, decided to dedicate himself to saving lives by becoming a doctor.   He said the biggest lesson he learned is that those with a strong faith and a belief in the power and wonder of human existence are the most resilient — and can survive where others may lose hope and perish.

“I believe this was a kind of experiment by a malicious hand that decided to throw onto the mountain a group of young rugby players,” he noted in a 2016 interview.

“University students with education and a belief in God—ideal guinea pigs for an experiment in human behavior. Who survived? It wasn’t the smartest, most intelligent ones. The ones who survived were those who most felt the joy of living. That gave them a reason to endure.”