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Escape from the Andes
On the 28th day on the mountain, a powerful avalanche hit the crash site. The snow traveled down the mountain with such force that it bombarded the fuselage and charged in through the open end of the shelter, burying everyone inside. Eight of the 27 survivors died of asphyxiation. The 19 that remained alive clawed their way through the snow, poking air holes to the surface in order to breathe. It took three days for the men to tunnel out and several more weeks until the fuselage emerged from the melting mass of fallen snow.
At the mercy of the elements and a dwindling food supply, the survivors now realized that their only hope for rescue would be to launch an expedition to find help. Led by Fernando Parrado, a three-man team including Roberto Canessa and Antonio Vizintín donned snowshoes fashioned from seat cushions and seat belt straps and left the crash site, headed west.
The expedition soon came across the tail section of the airplane, where they found a box of chocolates and a camera. The team also discovered 24V batteries that they hoped would power the plane’s radio, but attempts to connect the complicated array of cables to the power source failed. By the 34th day on the mountain, the weakest of the survivors began to succumb to their injuries. After two months stranded in the Andes, only 16 survivors remained alive.
On December 12, 1972, 60 days after the accident, the expedition team departed the crash site with a sleeping bag fashioned from aircraft insulation and a three-day ration of human flesh as sustenance. Still believing that they were near to Curicó and the edge of the mountain range, the men headed west. While the survivors looked on from the crash site, Parrado, Canessa and Vizintín took three days to climb the mountain directly to the west, a height of 14,447 feet. At the summit, they realized that they were surrounded by mountains on all sides; the journey was going to be far more difficult than they initially hoped. Parrado and Canessa were the fittest of the three, and agreed that Antonio Vizintín should return to the group, but leave his rations with them for the final push out of the mountains. Although Canessa thought he could see the outline of a road to the east, the men still believed they were in Chile, and determined to press on to the west, where they could see snowless peaks and the Pacific Ocean in the distance. Finally, after 10 days of trekking with no shelter, Parrado and Canessa glimpsed their first signs of civilization in more than two months: a river, a cow and green grass.
Fernando Parrado and Roberto Canessa had traveled nearly 40 miles out of the mountains. Finally, the exhausted and starving survivors saw a Chilean rancher on horseback riding on the opposite bank of a raging river. The noise of the river prevented them from yelling to one another, but the next day, the rancher returned, tied a piece of paper and a pencil to a rock and threw it across to the men. Parrado used the supplies to send across a note and after reading it, the rancher threw the men some bread and cheese and departed, returning 10 hours later with a military escort and medial assistance. Journalists had also picked up on the story and arrived at the rescue site to report the unbelievable news. It was December 21, 1972, 71 days after the crash.
The next day, the survivors at the crash site learned by transistor radio that Parrado and Canessa had escaped from the Andes and that a rescue mission was underway. Parrado guided helicopter pilots to the crash site to begin rescue efforts for the 14 survivors still atop the mountain. By December 23, all of the survivors had been rescued after the 72-day-long ordeal. In the aftermath, news outlets began to disseminate the gruesome story of “cannibalism” in the Andes, but the survivors found comfort when the Catholic Church officially declared that they had done the right thing in the face of extraordinary circumstances.
Rescue workers returned to the mountain to bury the remains of the deceased near the crash site. The grave was marked with an iron cross set atop a pile of stones that still stands today as a monument to the tragedy.
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