This Day In History: October 13

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On the afternoon of October 13, 1972, Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 begins its descent toward Santiago, Chile, too early and crashes high in the Andes Mountains. After more than two unthinkably harrowing months, 16 of the 45 who boarded the plane will be rescued—and sometimes referred to as the Miracle in the Andes.

The plane had been chartered to fly the Old Christians Rugby Club of Montevideo, Uruguay to a match in Santiago. 19 of those aboard were members of the team, while most of the other passengers were friends and family of team members. Flying through the cloud-obscured mountains, the co-pilot began his descent prematurely. Survivors recalled feeling turbulence before a black ridge appeared directly in front of the plane. The pilot tried to fly straight up and over the ridge, but the plane nonetheless hit the mountain, breaking into several pieces and skidding until coming to rest on a glacier. 12 people died in the crash, including the pilot, and five more died shortly thereafter, including the co-pilot who had been operating the controls. Within an hour of the crash, the Chilean Air Search and Rescue Service had planes in the air looking for survivors, but it would be 72 days before they were found.

On their eleventh day in the mountains, the survivors learned via a makeshift radio that the search had been called off. They quickly ran out of food. As survivor Roberto Canessa remembered, “After just a few days, we were feeling the sensation of our own bodies consuming themselves just to remain alive. … We knew the answer, but it was too terrible to contemplate.” Eventually, after prayer and heart-wrenching deliberation, all but one agreed that the solution was to eat the dead. It is a virtual certainty that all those remaining would have died had they not resorted to cannibalism.

On the seventeenth day, an avalanche struck the fuselage of the plane, where the survivors were taking shelter, killing eight more and nearly burying the rest alive. On November 15, an expedition of four set out in an attempt to find help by heading into a nearby valley. Although they were forced to turn back, they did find the tail of the wrecked plane, which contained a small amount of food and medicine as well as comic books.

Understanding, based on the failure of the first expedition, that the only way to reach help would be to climb the mountain that lay to the West, the survivors knit insulation from the airplane into a sleeping bag that could protect Canessa, Nando Parrado and Antonio Vizintín, who were chosen for the second expedition. After a grueling three-day climb, Parrado and Canessa reached the summit, where they learned that they were deeper into the mountains than they had expected—their assumption that they were close to Curicó, Chile had been based on the same navigational error that had caused the crash in the first place. 

Certain that they were going to their deaths, Parrado and Canessa hiked onward for nine more days, eventually following a river down into a valley where they were able to find help. After being rescued by a local muleteer, they guided two Chilean Air Force helicopters to the crash site, where half the survivors were evacuated on December 22 and the rest were evacuated on the morning of the 23rd.

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