One Dark Secret Kept Survivors Of A Remote Plane Crash Alive
The survival story of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 will leave you in wonder. Let's investigate how the Andes plane crash survivors struggled to stay alive.Secrets
On Thursday, October 12, 1972, the Old Christians Club rugby team left their hometown of Montevideo, Uruguay, in high spirits. They were excited to make the trip through Argentina and across the Andes mountains to Santiago, Chile where they would play in a match against another team.
The nineteen players were bringing along twenty-one friends and family members, which added to the festive and celebratory atmosphere. They knew it would be an unforgettable experience, but they had no idea that this trip would leave them fighting for their survival and lead them down a path so dark that it would leave them changed forever.
Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571
The 832-mile trip would have taken more than 20 hours by road. The team decided to splurge by chartering a twin turboprop Fairchild FH-227D plane belonging to the Uruguayan Air Force.
It came equipped with a crew of five servicemen. The pilot, Colonel Julio César Ferradas, had 5117 flying hours to his name, including 29 flights across the Andes.
The flight across Argentina was uneventful, but as they approached the mountains, the weather took a turn for the worse. So they decided to stay overnight at Mendoza International Airport in the foothills of the Andes in the hope that conditions may improve.
By the next day, the weather had not changed, but they didn't want to delay their trip any further. Ferradas had an important decision to make. He could take the direct route to Santiago, which was only 122 miles away, but this would have been very tricky because the route reached elevations of nearly 26,000 feet, while the plane's maximum was 28,000 feet.
He was also training a new copilot, Lieutenant-Colonel Dante Héctor Lagurara. Finally, Ferradas decided to go with the safer route, flying south to Planchón Pass where they could cross at a lower elevation.
The 576-mile journey would have taken about 90 minutes. They departed Mendoza at 2:18 pm and the weather was still stormy, while visibility was very poor. They had to rely upon a combination of radio navigation and dead reckoning.
Crash In The Andes
At 3:21, co-pilot Lagurara radioed air traffic control in Santiago to say that they had passed over the mountains and were turning north. He received permission to drop to 11,500 feet in altitude for the final stretch towards the airport.
As they began their descent, it became clear that something was very wrong. Extreme turbulence shook the plane violently as the pilots fought desperately to regain control.
Fear quickly turned to horror when they broke through the clouds and found that the pilots had inaccurately judged their location. They were still in the Andes and they had no chance to avoid the collision that followed.
The plane struck the mountain with tremendous force, tearing the right wing and tail off the fuselage. The left wing was the next to crash into the ground, sending its propeller shearing into the body of the plane.
Then the fuselage hit the ground and skidded like a toboggan before coming to a sudden jarring stop against a snowbank. Seven people had been thrown from the plane during the crash, and their bodies were nowhere in sight. Of the remaining passengers and crew, five had been killed, including the pilot and the team’s only physician.
First Night and Day
As night fell, bringing bitter coldness with it, the survivors came to the grim realization that they were stranded thousands of miles from civilization with no means of contacting rescuers. The mild climate in their hometown left them completely unprepared for freezing temperatures, and they had no warm clothing.
This was the first time many of them had even seen snow. They huddled together using the remaining section of the fuselage as a shelter. Copilot Lagurara was critically injured and begged one of the passengers to find the gun in his luggage and shoot him to end his suffering.
Aside from trying to keep warm, there was little the survivors could do except wait for rescuers to find them. They were able to spot planes searching for them, but since the fuselage was white, it blended in with the snow and was impossible to see from the sky.
They tried to signal for help by writing SOS on the top of the plane with lipstick salvaged from the wreckage, but it was futile.
While they awaited rescue over the next several days, survival proved to be a constant struggle. They gathered together the small amount of food they could salvage and rationed it out very strictly.
They developed a system for melting snow into drinking water, improvised goggles for combating snow blindness, and found a small transistor radio with which they could hear search teams’ transmissions.
When they ran out of food, all of the survivors continued frantically searching for anything remotely edible. They tore apart the upholstery hoping that the seats were stuffed with straw, and when they found upholstery foam instead, they tried to eat that.
They ate the leather they could strip from suitcases, which made them sick because of the chemicals it contained. Nine days into their ordeal, another passenger died.
On the tenth day, they heard the devastating announcement on the radio that the search for them had been called off. There was no longer any hope that they would be rescued. They would have to rescue themselves. That night, the twenty-seven people who were still alive gathered together for a meeting.
Several were injured and were not physically capable of hiking out of the mountains. Their only shot at survival was to have one or more people hike out of the mountains and find civilization, which would be impossible in their severely weakened state of starvation. They would need some form of food in order to survive.
This was the first time they openly discussed a gruesome fact that had only been whispered about in small groups before that point. There was only one source of food available, and that was the bodies of their dead friends.
As devout Roman Catholics, they drew strength from Bible verse John 15:14, which reads “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
They made a pact that, if any of them were to die, they wanted the others to consume their bodies so that at least some of them would have a chance to survive. They felt confident that their dead companions would have felt the same way.
The decision having been made, they steeled their nerves and set about carving meat from their friends’ bodies in long, thin strips. They let these strips freeze and forced themselves to choke down their first sickening meal of raw human flesh.
Over the next several days, they became more efficient at the process of butchering. In order to improve the taste, they would roast the meat over a fire whenever possible. When no fire was available, they would eat it raw.
Three of the strongest members, Nando Parrado, Roberto Canessa, and Antonio Vizintin, were chosen to be expeditioners. While the other survivors had jobs to do around the makeshift camp, these three were tasked with conserving their energy in order to build up the strength to hike back to civilization and send help.
But their plans were delayed when an avalanche struck in the middle of the night on October 29th, burying the fuselage and killing eight people. It took the remaining survivors three days to dig their way out.
In the next few days, the expeditioners managed to locate the tail section of the plane. They tore out the upholstery and sewed it into a sleeping bag large enough to fit all three expeditioners during their trek.
Parrado, Canessa, and Vizintin set off on their desperate mission on December 12th, exactly two months after their plane had crashed. By this time, three more people had died. Only 16 survivors remained.
The expeditioners fought desperately against altitude sickness, snow blindness, and sheer exhaustion. The three climbed the mountain to their west, reaching the nearly 17,000-foot summit in three days. They fully expected to see the green landscape of Brazil on the other side. To their horror, the only sight that awaited them was even more mountains.
In order to conserve resources, the three decided that Vizintin would return to the fuselage the next day. This left two expeditioners: Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa, neither of whom had any hiking equipment or previous climbing experience.
They spent the next ten days hiking over rough and difficult terrain, with only their instincts to guide them. Eventually, they found a stream and followed it down towards civilization.
On December 21st they spotted a shepherd on horseback on the other side of the river. They tried shouting, but he couldn't make out their words over the sound of the rushing water. Parrado threw him a note explaining their dire situation and asking when he would come back to rescue them.
The astounded man threw two loaves of bread to them, yelling a single word in response across the river: “tomorrow!”
On December 22nd, the helicopters returned and Parrado guided them to the fuselage where the other fourteen survivors were waiting. The helicopters were not able to carry everyone at once, so six of the survivors were rescued that day, and a small team of medics was left behind to tend to the other eight on their final night at the crash site.
On the morning of December 23rd, a full 72 days after the crash, the last of the survivors were rescued. They were all severely underweight but had no serious injuries to speak of.
From the very beginning, they spoke openly about their experience and asked the families of their dead friends for forgiveness. The families responded with compassion. A priest came to take the survivors’ confession.
He spoke with them at length and told them that no sin had been committed, since they hadn't killed anyone, but only done what they had to in order to survive. The survivors of the flight disaster remained close, and they visited the crash site many times.
One passed away from cancer in 2015 at the age of 79, but the other fifteen still meet every year on December 22nd, along with their families. As of 2017, the number of immediate family members at this celebration of life was at least 140.
Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 has come to be known as “El Milagro de los Andes,” or “The Miracle of the Andes.” Several of the survivors have written books about their horrifying ordeal, and their stories have inspired several movies, books, and documentaries.
Roberto Canessa's book "I Had To Survive: How a Plane Crash in The Andes Inspired My Calling To Save Lives" shares insights of the life-changing experience. Other survivors, such as Jose Luis "Coche" also wrote autobiographical books about the incident.
If you would like to learn more about their foundation, or to send a message to some or all of the survivors of the Andes plane crash, you can visit their official website.