I Am Alive: The Crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571
On October 13, 1972, Uruguayan Air Force flight 571 crashed in the heart of South America’s Andes Mountains, beginning one of the most harrowing survival ordeals in history. The flight carried members of an amateur Uruguayan rugby team, the Old Christians, along with some of their friends and family. After 10 days, search efforts were abandoned, leaving 27 survivors to endure extreme cold, altitude, harsh weather conditions and starvation, 11,800 feet up in one of the most remote locations on Earth with little hope of rescue. Lacking any natural food sources, the group eventually resorted to eating human flesh to stay alive. After 60 days stranded in the Andes, two of the survivors, Fernando “Nando” Parrado and Roberto Canessa, set out from the crash site to find a way out of the mountains and to seek rescue. After 10 days and a trek of nearly 40 miles through harsh mountain terrain, the pair reached civilization in Chile. By December 23, 1972, all 16 of the survivors were finally rescued after 72 days of suffering in the Andes.
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.
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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I Am Alive: The Crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571
I Am Alive: The Crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571. (2013). The History Channel website. Retrieved 4:00, May 22, 2013, from http://www.history.com/topics/alive.
I Am Alive: The Crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571. [Internet]. 2013. The History Channel website. Available from: http://www.history.com/topics/alive [Accessed 22 May 2013].
“I Am Alive: The Crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571.” 2013. The History Channel website. May 22 2013, 4:00 http://www.history.com/topics/alive.
“I Am Alive: The Crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571,” The History Channel website, 2013, http://www.history.com/topics/alive [accessed May 22, 2013].
“I Am Alive: The Crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571,” The History Channel website, http://www.history.com/topics/alive (accessed May 22, 2013).
I Am Alive: The Crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 [Internet]. The History Channel website; 2013 [cited 2013 May 22] Available from: http://www.history.com/topics/alive.
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I Am Alive: The Crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571. The History Channel website. 2013. Available at: http://www.history.com/topics/alive. Accessed May 22, 2013.