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Unseasonably low temperatures in Tehran, Iran, lead to the deaths of at least 40 people on this day in 2003. Rarely do such large groups die at the same…
Did You Know?
All 16 of the survivors of Flight 571 are still alive and gather every year on the anniversary of their rescue. In October 2002, the surviving members of the Old Christians rugby team played a symbolic commemorative match against members of the Old Boys rugby team, whom they had been scheduled to face 30 years before.
The Doomed Flight
Bound for Santiago, Chile, the charter flight departed Montevideo, Uruguay, on October 12, with 40 passengers and five crew members on board. The flight carried members of an amateur rugby team, the Old Christians, along with friends, family and associates en route to Chile where they were scheduled to play a match against a Chilean team, the Old Boys, in the Copa Amistad Rugby Tournament. The route from Montevideo in southern Uruguay, to Santiago in central Chile, was virtually a straight trip west across Argentina, but the Andes Mountains straddling the border between Argentina and Chile were a formidable obstacle. Poor weather conditions over the mountains forced the flight to land in Mendoza, Argentina, a town in the eastern foothills of the Andes, where the passengers and crew waited overnight for the skies to clear before continuing west across the mountain range and the Chilean border.
The aircraft, a twin turboprop Fairchild FH-227, lacked the power to traverse the highest Andean peaks during inclement weather. So when the flight resumed on Friday, October 13, the Captain, Air Force Colonel Julio Ferradas, devised a plan to circumnavigate the highest altitudes by flying south and then west, across a mountain pass. Upon take off from Mendoza, Col. Ferradas plotted a course across a break in the mountains called the Planchon Pass, bound for the city of Curicó, Chile, on the western edge of the Andes. At Curicó, the plane would then turn north toward Santiago, the intended final destination, but a critical miscalculation by the crew doomed the flight to disaster.
Shrouded in cloud cover while high above the mountain pass, the crew of Flight 571 had few visual cues to confirm their location. Based on standard flight times, it should have taken Flight 571 approximately 11 minutes to cross safely through the Planchon Pass. After only three minutes, the crew contacted air traffic control in Santiago to request permission to turn north, believing that they had cleared the mountains and reached Curicó. Still deep within the mountains, Flight 571 turned north and began to descend. The plane was rattled by severe turbulence before it emerged from the cloud cover, perilously close to the mountains. The pilot’s attempts to gain altitude were unsuccessful and at 3:32 pm, the right wing of the aircraft clipped a mountain peak and dislodged, severing the tail section of the plane. The left wing then clipped a second peak and was torn away, propelling the fuselage approximately 5,000 feet down the snow-covered mountain. The fuselage came to rest in a desolate valley at an elevation of 11,800 feet. Twelve passengers and crew were killed in the initial crash, but 33 survived, some with critical injuries.
Fight for Survival
In the immediate aftermath of the crash, the survivors discovered the co-pilot mortally wounded and pinned under wreckage, but able to communicate. The co-pilot reported the last known location of the flight as Curicó, leading the survivors to believe that they must have crashed along the western edge of the mountain range. Vulnerable to the extreme conditions of the crash site, survivors scavenged resources from the wreckage and used the fuselage as a shelter from the elements as they awaited rescue. They gathered the dead and sequestered the bodies near the open end of the fuselage. Among them was the body of Fernando Parrado, who was unconscious, but presumed dead. He would awaken three days later to discover his sister, Susana, near death and that his mother, Eugenia, had not survived the crash.
Food rations were limited to a can of sardines, some chocolates and several bottles of liquor. Survivors obtained potable fresh water by gathering snow onto sheets of scrap metal, leaving it to melt in the sun and collecting it in empty bottles. Among the wreckage they were able to find a screwdriver, an axe and a functioning transistor radio, but they had no medicine or first aid supplies to help the wounded.
Nighttime temperatures on the mountain plunged to -30°F. Weakened by injury, five more of the survivors perished during the first night. The following morning, a plane passed overhead, but the white fuselage was camouflaged by the surrounding snow and was not discovered. Search and rescue efforts involved teams from three countries canvassing an area that included the crash site, but the fuselage was never spotted. After 10 days, the survivors heard a news report on the transistor radio indicating that rescue efforts were being abandoned.
By this time, 27 survivors remained but their meager food supply was depleted. Determined to fight for life, the survivors decided to eat the only source of nourishment available: the flesh of those who had perished in the crash. The passengers cut pieces of plastic from the windows of the airplane and honed them with the axe to create sharpened knives. These rudimentary tools were used to cut through to the protein-rich organs that would provide the most sustenance. Lacking enough combustible material to build fires for cooking, the survivors ate most of the flesh raw. At a point of complete desperation, the friends made a pact that if any should die, the others should use their bodies to live.
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