Over half a century ago, Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, carrying 45 passengers and crew, among them members of a Uruguayan rugby team and their acquaintances, tragically crashed in the Andes mountains of Argentina.
Over ten weeks, the survivors confronted a series of extreme challenges, including subzero temperatures, consecutive avalanches, and the harrowing prospect of starvation. In their dire circumstances, they had no alternative but to resort to consuming the remains of their fallen comrades to endure.
Nando Parrado, one of the 16 individuals who managed to survive the ordeal following the crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, said, “We are akin to souls on borrowed time, yet…we persist in our journey.”
Prelude to the Crash: The Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571
The amateur Old Christians Club rugby union team, hailing from Montevideo, Uruguay, had a scheduled match in Santiago, Chile, against the Old Boys Club, an English rugby team. The club president, Daniel Juan, arranged a charter flight using a Uruguayan Air Force twin turboprop Fairchild FH-227D to transport the team across the Andes to Santiago. The aircraft accommodated 40 passengers and had a crew of five members.
The pilot in command, Colonel Julio César Ferradas, boasted extensive aviation experience with 5,117 flying hours. His co-pilot, Lieutenant-Colonel Dante Héctor Lagurara, accompanied him. In addition to the team members, there were ten spare seats, and a few friends and family members were invited to join.
Graziela Mariani secured one of these seats at the last minute to attend her eldest daughter’s wedding.
The weather on the 13th of October also played a crucial role in the flight’s circumstances. In the morning, conditions over the Andes had not improved, but it was anticipated that changes would occur by early afternoon. The pilot exercised patience and eventually took off from Mendoza at 2:18 p.m. on that fateful Friday, the 13th. The flight path led southward toward the Malargüe radio beacon at 18,000 feet (FL180 or approximately 5,500 meters).
Lieutenant-Colonel Lagurara communicated the aircraft’s position to Malargüe Airport and informed them of their expected arrival at the Planchón Pass, situated at 2,515 meters (8,251 feet), by 3:21 p.m. The Planchón Pass marked the transition point from one side of the Andes to the other regarding air traffic control, with controllers in Mendoza handing over flight tracking responsibilities to Pudahuel air traffic control in Santiago.
After crossing the Chilean mountains south of Curicó, the aircraft was intended to make a northward turn and commence its descent towards Pudahuel Airport in Santiago.
Pilot Ferradas brought a wealth of experience, having successfully navigated the Andes on twenty-nine previous occasions. However, on this particular flight, he was an instructor, overseeing co-pilot Lagurara, who was actively handling the controls.
As they advanced through the mountainous terrain of the Andes, a thick layer of clouds obscured the towering peaks. Though relatively young at four years old with 792 airframe hours, the aircraft had acquired a reputation among some pilots as being somewhat underpowered and had earned the nickname “lead-sled.”
Given the limited visibility due to the cloud cover, the pilots operated under instrument meteorological conditions while maintaining an altitude of 18,000 feet (5,500 meters) (FL180). Visual confirmation of their location was impossible under these circumstances.
Although some accounts suggest that the co-pilot may have miscalculated their position through dead reckoning, he primarily relied on radio navigation.
The aircraft’s VOR/DME instrument provided the co-pilot with a digital readout of the distance to the next radio beacon in Curicó. Even after passing through Planchón Pass, a considerable distance of 60–70 kilometers (37–43 miles) remained to reach Curicó.
Nonetheless, at precisely 3:21 p.m., shortly after transiting the pass, Lagurara established contact with Santiago and informed the air traffic controllers of his expected arrival in Curicó just a minute later. Ordinarily, the flight from the pass to Curicó takes around 11 minutes.
However, three minutes after that communication, the co-pilot informed Santiago that they had already passed Curicó and initiated a northward turn. Subsequently, he requested permission from air traffic control to commence descent.
Unbeknownst to the controller in Santiago, who assumed the flight was beyond the Andes, permission was granted for a descent to 11,500 feet (3,500 meters) (FL115).
A later examination of their flight path revealed that the co-pilot had made the turn prematurely and veered onto a heading of 014 degrees instead of the appropriate 030 degrees.
The Crash on the Andes
As the aircraft descended, it encountered severe turbulence, causing it to ascend and descend rapidly. Nando Parrado recounted an unsettling moment when they hit a downdraft, resulting in a sharp descent and a break from the cloud cover.
Initially, the rugby players treated the turbulence lightly with jests, but soon, some passengers noticed the looming presence of the mountains. Parrado reflected, “That was likely the instant when the pilots beheld the ominous dark ridge directly ahead.”
Roberto Canessa later surmised that the pilot had initiated the northward turn prematurely and commenced the descent toward Santiago while the aircraft was still at a high altitude within the Andes. Then, “he began to climb until the plane was nearly vertical, and it began to stall and shake.” The aircraft’s ground collision alarm sounded, triggering an alarm among all the passengers.
In a desperate bid to gain altitude, the co-pilot applied maximum power. Eyewitness testimonies and physical evidence at the crash site pointed to the plane making contact with the mountainside twice or thrice during this tumultuous ordeal. The co-pilot managed to bring the aircraft’s nose over the ridge, but at precisely 3:34 p.m., the lower part of the tail cone may have grazed the ridge at an altitude of 4,200 meters (13,800 feet).
In the subsequent collision, the right wing was severed, and there is some indication that it was forcefully thrown backward, leading to the detachment of the vertical stabilizer, horizontal stabilizers, tail cone, and rear portion of the fuselage.
This catastrophic event left a substantial gap in the back of the fuselage. Tragically, three passengers, along with the navigator and steward, were lost in the tail section.
Despite these harrowing circumstances, the aircraft continued its forward and upward trajectory for a brief period, ascending an additional 200 meters (660 feet) for a few seconds before the left wing struck a protruding outcrop at an elevation of 4,400 meters (14,400 feet), resulting in the wing’s detachment.
During this separation, one of the propellers sliced through the fuselage as it remained attached to the severed wing. Two more passengers were ejected from the now-open rear of the fuselage.
The front section of the fuselage continued to hurtle forward, soaring through the air before descending at a rapid speed of 350 km/h (220 mph) down the steep glacier, much like a high-speed toboggan. Its descent covered a distance of approximately 725 meters (2,379 feet).
Upon colliding with a snow bank, the seats were ripped from their mountings and flung against the forward bulkhead and each other. This impact proved fatal for the cockpit, where both pilots were situated. Pilot Ferradas lost his life instantly.
The official investigation into this tragic event ultimately attributed the crash to a controlled flight into terrain due to pilot error.
The Survivors of Desolation
Pilot Ferradas met his demise instantaneously as the nose gear compressed the instrument panel against his chest, leading to his head protruding from the window. Co-pilot Lagurara sustained critical injuries and found himself trapped in the crushed cockpit.
In desperation, he requested that one of the passengers locate his pistol and end his suffering, but the passenger declined to comply.
Of the original 45 occupants, 33 survived, albeit many suffered serious or critical injuries. These included broken legs resulting from the aircraft seats collapsing forward against the luggage partition and the pilot’s cabin.
Quick-thinking medical students Canessa and Gustavo Zerbino took swift action, evaluating the severity of the injuries and providing aid to those they could assist most effectively. Parrado sustained a skull fracture and remained in a coma for three days.
Enrique Platero faced a particularly challenging situation with a piece of metal lodged in his abdomen, which, when removed, brought a portion of his intestine along with it. Nevertheless, he immediately began helping others. Tragically, none of the passengers with compound fractures survived this devastating ordeal.
The Chilean Air Search and Rescue Service (SARS) swiftly received notification of the missing flight within the hour. Four planes were dispatched for search efforts that afternoon, continuing until darkness fell. It wasn’t until around 6:00 p.m. that evening that the news of the missing flight reached the Uruguayan media.
Having listened to the radio transmissions, SARS officers determined that the aircraft likely went down in one of the Andes’ most remote and inaccessible regions. They contacted the Andes Rescue Group of Chile (CSA) in response.
Unbeknownst to both those on board and the rescue teams, the crash had occurred approximately 21 kilometers (13 miles) from the former Hotel Termas el Sosneado, an abandoned resort with hot springs that could have provided limited shelter.
On the second day following the disappearance, 11 aircraft from Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay participated in the search operation. The search area encompassed their last known location and the vicinity of the crash site. Some aircraft came close to the wreckage, where the survivors made valiant efforts to use recovered lipstick from the luggage to inscribe an SOS message on the aircraft’s roof.
Unfortunately, they soon realized that they didn’t possess enough lipstick to create letters that would be visible from the air. Additionally, they constructed a cross in the snow using luggage, but regrettably, it went unnoticed by the search and rescue aircraft. Despite their best efforts, they saw three aircraft passing overhead but could not attract their attention, and none of the aircraft crews spotted the white fuselage against the snow-covered landscape.
The challenging environmental conditions offered little hope to the search teams regarding the possibility of finding survivors alive. After eight days of intense search efforts, it was decided to cancel the search.
On the 21st of October, having dedicated 142 hours and 30 minutes to the search, the rescue teams reluctantly concluded that there was no hope for the passengers and terminated the operation. Since the snow had not yet melted during the southern hemisphere’s spring, they hoped to find the bodies in December when the summer thaw would uncover them.
The Will to Survive on the Andes
During the first night following the crash, five more individuals tragically lost their lives. Co-pilot Lagurara, Francisco Abal, Graziela Mariani, Felipe Maquirriain, and Julio Martinez-Lamas were among them.
The 28 remaining survivors, faced with a dire situation, promptly initiated efforts to enhance their chances of survival. They cleared away the broken seats and other debris from the aircraft and ingeniously constructed a makeshift shelter within the wreckage. They crowded into the damaged fuselage, occupying a space measuring approximately 2.5 by 3 meters (8 feet 2 inches by 9 feet 10 inches).
To mitigate the cold, they utilized luggage, seats, and snow to seal off the open end of the fuselage. Their resourcefulness extended to various aspects of survival. Fito Strauch devised a method for obtaining water in freezing conditions using sheet metal found under the seats, upon which snow was placed.
The sun’s heat melted the snow, allowing the water to drip into empty wine bottles. To shield themselves from snow blindness, makeshift sunglasses were fashioned using the sun visors from the pilot’s cabin, wire, and a bra strap.
The seat covers, which included wool, were repurposed to provide insulation against the cold, and seat cushions were adapted as snowshoes. The leadership role naturally fell to Marcelo Perez, the rugby team captain.
Nando Parrado emerged from a coma after three days, only to learn of the passing of his mother and the severe injuries sustained by his 19-year-old sister, Susana. Despite his efforts to save her, Susana succumbed to her injuries on the eighth day. The remaining 27 survivors grappled with the formidable challenge of surviving the frigid nights, with temperatures plummeting to -30°C (-22°F). Most had never encountered snow before, let alone experienced high-altitude conditions.
The lack of medical supplies, cold-weather clothing, gear, or food exacerbated their situation. They possessed only three pairs of sunglasses to protect against snow blindness.
The survivors discovered a small transistor radio wedged between the aircraft seats in their desperate circumstances. Roy Harley ingeniously fashioned an extended antenna using an electrical cable from the plane. When they tuned in to the radio, they received the disheartening news that the search for them had been called off on the eleventh day of their ordeal.
Piers Paul Read’s book “Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors” depicted the moment when they learned of the search’s termination:
The news hit them hard, with most of the group sobbing and praying, except for Nando Parrado, who gazed calmly at the towering mountains to the west. Gustavo “Coco” Nicolich emerged from the aircraft and, upon witnessing the mournful expressions on their faces, realized what they had heard. He climbed through a hole in the wall of suitcases and rugby shirts, crouched at the tunnel’s entrance, and observed the solemn faces turned toward him.
“Hey, boys,” he shouted, “there’s some good news! We just heard it on the radio. They’ve called off the search.” Inside the crowded aircraft, silence enveloped them. As the realization of their hopeless predicament sunk in, they wept. “Why the hell is that good news?” Paez angrily exclaimed to Nicolich. “Because it means,” Nicolich replied, “that we’re going to get out of here on our own.”
It was the courage of this one individual that prevented a wave of utter despair.
People Resorting to Cannibalism to Stay Alive
With very limited food supplies that included eight chocolate bars, a tin of mussels, three small jars of jam, a tin of almonds, a few dates, candies, dried plums, and several bottles of wine, the survivors carefully rationed their meager provisions to make them last as long as possible.
Parrado, for instance, consumed just a single chocolate-covered peanut over three days. Despite their strict rationing, their food stores quickly dwindled. They explored the fuselage, hoping to find any remnants or morsels. They attempted to eat leather from the seats and other parts of the airplane, although they knew that the chemicals in the materials were more harmful than helpful.
Seat cushions were ripped open while searching for straw but yielded only inedible upholstery foam. Regrettably, their provisions ran out after just one week, and they resorted to eating parts of the airplane itself, such as the cotton inside the seats and leather. Unfortunately, these actions only made them sicker.
Aware that rescue efforts had been abandoned and faced with starvation and death, those who remained alive collectively decided that should they pass away, the others might consume their bodies to survive. This decision was not taken lightly, as most of the deceased were classmates, close friends, or family members.
Canessa used a shard of broken glass from the aircraft’s windshield as a makeshift cutting tool. He set the example by swallowing the first minuscule strip of frozen flesh. Eventually, several others followed suit. The next day, more survivors reluctantly ate the meat offered to them, but a few either refused or could not keep it down.
In his memoir, “Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home” (2006), Parrado reflected on this decision:
“At high altitude, the body’s caloric needs are astronomical… we were starving in earnest, with no hope of finding food, but our hunger soon grew so voracious that we searched anyway… again and again, we scoured the fuselage in search of crumbs and morsels.
“We tried to eat strips of leather torn from pieces of luggage, though we knew that the chemicals they’d been treated with would do us more harm than good. We ripped open seat cushions hoping to find straw, but found only inedible upholstery foam… Again and again, I came to the same conclusion: unless we wanted to eat the clothes we were wearing, there was nothing here but aluminum, plastic, ice, and rock.”
The survivors gradually consumed the bodies of their deceased comrades in their desperate bid to survive. This decision was heart-wrenching, given that many of the deceased were their classmates, close friends, or relatives. They dried the meat in the sun to make it more palatable.
Initially, they could only bring themselves to eat the skin, muscle, and fat. Their flesh supply diminished, so they consumed hearts, lungs, and brains. All of the passengers were Roman Catholic, and while some grappled with the fear of eternal damnation, others rationalized this cannibalism by drawing parallels to the Eucharist—the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ under the appearances of bread and wine. Some justified it by citing a Bible verse in John 15:13: “No man hath greater love than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.”
Ultimately, all those still alive at the time of this decision resorted to consuming the flesh of the deceased, though not without inner turmoil and reservations. Javier Methol and his wife Liliana, the sole surviving female passenger, were the last to partake in eating human flesh.
Liliana initially had strong religious convictions and reluctantly agreed to consume the flesh after being told to view it as “like Holy Communion.”
The Avalanche That Almost Destroyed Hope
Seventeen days after the crash, on the night of October 29th, near midnight, a devastating avalanche struck the aircraft while the survivors were sleeping. It inundated the fuselage, resulting in the tragic loss of eight lives: Enrique Platero, Liliana Methol, Gustavo Nicolich, Daniel Maspons, Juan Menendez, Diego Storm, Carlos Roque, and Marcelo Perez.
The death of Marcelo Perez, who was not only the team captain but also a leader among the survivors, along with the loss of Liliana Methol, who had been caring for the group like a mother and a saint, was an emotionally crushing blow for those who remained.
The avalanche completely buried the fuselage and filled its interior within approximately 1 meter (3 feet 3 inches) of the roof. The survivors inside quickly realized that they were running out of breathable air.
Nando Parrado managed to find a metal pole from the luggage racks, and they succeeded in partially opening one of the windows from the pilot’s cabin, creating a small hole through the snow that allowed for ventilation. However, their escape attempts faced significant challenges.
On the morning of October 31st, with great difficulty, they dug a tunnel from the cockpit to the surface, only to be met with a fierce blizzard outside. Forced to remain inside the fuselage, they were trapped in extremely cramped quarters, with only about 1 meter (3 feet 3 inches) of headroom, surrounded by the bodies of those who had perished in the avalanche.
With no other options, on the third day of being buried, they made the harrowing decision to consume the raw flesh of their newly deceased companions. Parrado later described the experience: “It was soft and greasy, streaked with blood and bits of wet gristle. I gagged hard when I placed it in my mouth.”
In the absence of Marcelo Perez, who had previously been a leader, three men—Daniel Fernández and cousins Eduardo and Fito Strauch—assumed leadership roles. They took on the grim task of harvesting flesh from the deceased and distributing it to the others.
Before the avalanche, some survivors had become increasingly convinced that their only chance of survival was crossing the mountains and seeking help. Believing that they were just a few kilometers west of the Chilean countryside due to the co-pilot’s dying statement that the aircraft had passed Curicó, they were more than 89 kilometers (55 miles) to the east, deep in the Andes.
As summer arrived, the snow that had buried the fuselage began to melt gradually. In the initial weeks following the crash, survivors undertook several brief expeditions near the aircraft. However, they soon discovered that altitude sickness, dehydration, snow blindness, malnourishment, and the extreme cold during the nights made it impossible to travel any significant distance.
The Brave Trek to Seek Help
Recognizing that their only hope for survival lay in crossing the mountains to the west, the survivors understood that this arduous journey was impossible unless they could find a way to endure the freezing night temperatures. They brainstormed and devised a remarkable plan to create a sleeping bag using materials salvaged from the rear of the fuselage, copper wire, and waterproof fabric that had covered the plane’s air conditioning system.
Nando Parrado detailed the ingenious process in his book, “Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home.”
Parrado described their thought process as follows:
“The second challenge would be to protect ourselves from exposure, especially after sundown. At this time of year, we could expect daytime temperatures well above freezing, but the nights were still cold enough to kill us, and we knew now that we couldn’t expect to find shelter on the open slopes.
We needed a way to survive the long nights without freezing, and the quilted batts of insulation we’d taken from the tail section gave us our solution … as we brainstormed about the trip, we realized we could sew the patches together to create a large warm quilt. Then we realized that by folding the quilt in half and stitching the seams together, we could create an insulated sleeping bag large enough for all three expeditionaries to sleep in. With the warmth of three bodies trapped by the insulating cloth, we might be able to weather the coldest nights.
Carlitos [Páez] took on the challenge. His mother had taught him to sew when he was a boy. With the needles and thread from the sewing kit found in his mother’s cosmetic case, he began to work … to speed the progress, Carlitos taught others to sew, and we all took our turns … Coche [Inciarte], Gustavo [Zerbino], and Fito [Strauch] turned out to be our best and fastest tailors.”
Once the sleeping bag was completed, they still faced uncertainty and hesitation, especially after the loss of Turcatti. Canessa was initially reluctant to venture out, and while others encouraged Parrado, none were willing to volunteer to accompany him.
Finally, Parrado persuaded Canessa to join him, and Vizintín joined them. On December 12th, the three men embarked on their daring journey into the mountains.
On December 12, 1972, Nando Parrado, Roberto Canessa, and Antonio Vizintín, lacking mountaineering equipment, embarked on their daunting journey. They began their ascent from 3,570 meters (11,710 feet) to reach the peak at 4,670 meters (15,320 feet), which obstructed their path westward.
Over more than ten days, they trekked an impressive 61 kilometers (38 miles) in search of help. However, due to a misinterpretation of their aircraft’s altimeter, they believed they were at 2,100 meters (7,000 feet) when they were actually at around 3,597 meters (11,800 feet).
They carried only a three-day meat supply, believing they were near the western edge of the Andes due to the co-pilot’s dying statement about their proximity to Curicó.
Parrado was dressed in three pairs of jeans, three sweaters over a polo shirt, and four pairs of socks wrapped in a plastic bag. They had no specialized gear, maps, compasses, or climbing experience. Rather than ascending the somewhat lower ridge to the west, they tackled the steep mountain directly.
Initially, they expected to reach the peak within a single day. Parrado led the way, and his companions frequently had to remind him to slow down due to the thin, oxygen-deprived air. During the climb, they sank into the snow up to their hips, which had softened by the summer sun.
Despite the sleeping bag providing some relief from the cold, nights were still bitterly cold. In the documentary film “Stranded,” Canessa described their first night on the ascent as the worst of his life.
Progress was slow, and the survivors at the fuselage watched their climb for three days. On the second day, Canessa believed he saw a road to the east and tried to convince Parrado to head in that direction, leading to a heated argument.
On the third morning of their trek, Canessa stayed at their camp while Vizintín and Parrado continued to the base of a nearly vertical wall covered in snow and ice, over one hundred meters (300 feet) tall. Determined to hike out or die trying, Parrado used a stick from his pack to carve steps into the wall and eventually reached the summit at 4,650 meters (15,260 feet) before Vizintín.
However, when he expected to see the green valleys of Chile to the west, he was met with the sight of a vast expanse of snow-covered mountains in every direction. They had inadvertently climbed a mountain on the border of Argentina and Chile, still far from the verdant valleys of Chile.
After rejoining Canessa, where they had slept the previous night, and sipping cognac they had found, Parrado remarked, “Roberto, can you imagine how beautiful this would be if we were not dead men?”
The next morning, they realized the journey would take much longer than anticipated, and their food supply was dwindling. Vizintín returned to the crash site, leaving his remaining food portions for Parrado and Canessa. The return journey was entirely downhill, and he used an aircraft seat as a makeshift sled, returning to the crash site in just one hour.
Parrado and Canessa, however, took three hours to climb back to the summit. When Canessa reached the top and saw nothing but snow-covered peaks stretching for kilometers around, he initially thought they were doomed.
Parrado spotted two smaller peaks in the western distance that were not covered in snow, with a valley leading toward them from the base of the mountain they stood. Parrado believed this valley was their path out of the mountains and refused to lose hope.
Canessa eventually agreed to head west, unaware that the road he had seen to the east would have led them to rescue sooner and more easily.
On the summit, Parrado told Canessa, “We may be walking to our deaths, but I would rather walk to meet my death than wait for it to come to me.” Canessa concurred, saying, “You and I are friends, Nando. We have been through so much. Now, let’s go die together.” Determined, they followed the ridge toward the valley and descended significantly.
Finding Help and Rescue
Parrado and Canessa continued their arduous journey, following the narrow valley Parrado spotted from the summit. They traced the source of the Río San José, which led to Río Portillo, eventually meeting with Río Azufre at Los Maitenes.
As they followed the river, they noticed increasing signs of human presence, first finding evidence of camping, and finally, on the ninth day, encountering some cows.
Exhausted and nearing their limits, they rested one evening, with Canessa appearing unable to continue. While gathering wood for a fire, they spotted three men on horseback on the opposite side of the river. Parrado called out to them, but the roaring river made communication impossible.
One of the men across the river saw Parrado and Canessa and shouted back, “Tomorrow!” True to their word, the men returned the next day.
One of the men on horseback wrote a note, attached it and a pencil to a rock using some string, and tossed the message across the river. Parrado responded with a message detailing their dire situation, mentioning the plane crash, the injured passengers on the plane, their weakness, lack of food, and their desperate need for rescue.
Sergio Catalán, a Chilean muleteer (arriero), found the note and understood the gravity of their situation. He talked with the other two men, and one of them recalled hearing about the Andes plane crash several weeks earlier. While they couldn’t fathom anyone surviving for so long in the harsh conditions, Catalán threw bread to Parrado and Canessa and set out on horseback for ten hours to seek help.
During his journey, Catalán encountered another arriero on the south side of Río Azufre and asked him to reach Parrado and Canessa and bring them to Los Maitenes. He then continued following the river until it joined Río Tinguiririca.
After crossing a bridge, he reached the narrow route connecting the village of Puente Negro to the holiday resort of Termas del Flaco. Here, he managed to stop a truck and reached the police station at Puente Negro, where news of the survivors was relayed to the Chilean Army command in San Fernando. From there, the information was passed on to Army headquarters in Santiago.
Meanwhile, Parrado and Canessa were brought to Los Maitenes on horseback, receiving nourishment and a chance to rest. Their incredible journey had covered approximately 61 kilometers (38 miles) over ten grueling days. Since the plane crash, Canessa had lost nearly half of his body weight, shedding about 44 kilograms (97 pounds).
The Response from the World
Upon their rescue, the survivors initially provided a somewhat sanitized version of their survival story. They claimed that they had consumed some of the limited food they had brought with them and local plants and herbs to sustain themselves. They intended to discuss the full details of their ordeal, including the difficult decision of resorting to cannibalism in private with their families.
However, rumors about the true extent of their survival tactics began to circulate in Montevideo shortly after their rescue. There were initial suspicions that some survivors may have killed others for food. The situation escalated when, on December 23, news reports of cannibalism started to surface worldwide, except in Uruguay.
The revelation came to the forefront on December 26 when two photographs, taken by members of the Cuerpo de Socorro Andino (Andean Relief Corps), were published on the front pages of two Chilean newspapers, El Mercurio and La Tercera de la Hora.
These images depicted a partially eaten human leg. The newspapers reported that all of the survivors had resorted to cannibalism.
In response to the growing public interest and media coverage, the survivors held a press conference on December 28 at Stella Maris College in Montevideo. Alfredo Delgado spoke on behalf of the group and recounted the harrowing events they had endured over the past 72 days.
He compared their actions and the Last Supper of Jesus, during which he gave his disciples the Eucharist. This analogy was meant to emphasize the extreme circumstances under which they agonized to consume the flesh of the deceased.
Initially, the survivors faced public backlash, but the outcry lessened as they explained the pact they had made to sacrifice their bodies if they died to help the others survive. Their families began to show more understanding.
A Catholic priest heard the survivors’ confessions and reassured them that, given the life-or-death nature of their survival situation, they were not condemned for their acts of cannibalism.
The news of their survival and their extreme measures to stay alive garnered worldwide attention and became a media sensation.
After the survivors were rescued, a difficult decision was made regarding the remains of those who had perished in the crash. The authorities and the families of the victims decided to bury the remains in a common grave near the site of the crash.
Thirteen of the bodies were relatively intact, while another 15 had mostly decomposed, leaving mostly skeletal remains. On January 18, 1973, a group consisting of 12 men and a Chilean priest transported the bodies to the crash site. Family members were not allowed to attend this solemn event.
At the crash site, they dug a grave located approximately 400 to 800 meters (about 1/4 to 1/2 mile) from the aircraft fuselage. They chose this location with the aim of ensuring it was safe from avalanches. They constructed a simple stone altar near the grave and placed an orange iron cross on it. A plaque was also laid on a pile of rocks, bearing the inscription:
EL MUNDO A SUS HERMANOS URUGUAYOS
CERCA, OH DIOS DE TI
[English: The world to its Uruguayan brothers
Close, oh God, to you]
Before burying the remains, the group doused the fuselage with gasoline and set it on fire. It’s worth noting that Eduardo Strauch mentioned in his book “Out of the Silence” that the bottom half of the fuselage, covered in snow and untouched by the fire, was still present during his first visit to the crash site in 1995.
Ricardo Echavarren, the father of one of the victims, received word from a survivor that his son had expressed a wish to be buried at home. Despite being unable to obtain official permission to retrieve his son’s body, Echavarren organized an expedition with hired guides.
He had prearranged a signal with the priest who had conducted the initial burial to mark the bag containing his son’s remains. Upon returning to the abandoned Hotel Termas with his son’s remains, Echavarren was arrested on grave robbing charges.
However, thanks to the intervention of a federal judge and the local mayor, Echavarren was eventually released. He later obtained legal permission to bury his son under his wishes.
The survivors’ story has left a lasting impact, inspiring books, documentaries, and even a feature film called “Alive.” It serves as a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the will to overcome unimaginable challenges.
The bonds forged during those 72 days in the Andes mountains have remained strong among the survivors, who continue to share their stories as a testament to the power of determination, hope, and the will to survive.
Next, read about Christopher McCandless, the man who Accidentally Strayed off the grid, and then, about Dr. Harold Shipman, Britain’s Most Prolific Serial Killer!
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