On 21 December 1972, one of the most dramatic survival stories in recent times reached its conclusion when the ragged, exhausted survivors of a plane crash were rescued more than two months after their plane crashed in the mountains of South America.
The flight, which carried a well-known rugby union team, landed at an altitude of over 3,600 meters, but sixteen hardy men survived to tell the tale. The story of the survival against all odds is known locally in the Miracle of the Andes.
Here’s how it unfolded.
Flight of the Fairchild
On the 13 October 1972, a Uruguayan Air Force plane was carrying the Old Christians team from their base in Montevideo in Uruguay to Santiago in Chile. They were set to play a Chilean rugby team.
Even before the crash, however, there had been issues. The weather on the flight-path over Argentina was foul, and the plane had already been forced to land and spend one night in an Argentinian airfield. The captain warned his 45 passengers that a direct trip across the Andes’ highest peaks would be impossible.
Instead, the flight would head south, going parallel to the mountain range, until it reached a mountain pass that would take it out of the dangerous mountains. The plan failed.
The peaks were shrouded in deep low-lying cloud, and in an age where piloting was done almost entirely by hand, steering the plane to safety quickly became an almost impossible task.
As they approached the Chilean border, they passed over an area of the mountains so remote that none of the mountains had been named or explored.
There the plane’s wing struck an unnamed peak and lost its right wing, plunging its passengers into chaos as the plane veered horribly and quickly lost the other wing as the mountains closed in around it.
After that, the useless body of the aircraft sank like a stone, smashed into the mountainside and then finally came into a screeching, burning halt in a snowbank. The fateful mountain would later be christened the Glacier of Tears.
Amazingly, given the force of the impact, only twelve were killed outright by the crash. The snowbank, which had probably saved the lives of the others, would prove to be a mixed blessing. The cold quickly killed the most seriously injured, including the only doctor on board.
With many of the survivors wounded, little food and no mountain equipment, the survival chances of the remaining passengers seemed bleak. However, they did not give in.
Two were medical students who used the wreckage of the plane to improvise splints for the array of broken limbs that had to be treated, and other parts were ingeniously salvaged to make goggles for preventing snow blindness.
The disappearance of the plane had of course been noticed, but as the wreckage was white it was impossible to spot from the air against the snowbank, and attempts to write SOS with lipstick proved to be futile. Unknown to the people on board, or the rescuers, the flight had crashed about 21 km from the former Hotel Termas el Sosneado, an abandoned resort and hot springs that could have provided limited shelter.
The freezing, desperate, hungry survivors huddled around a salvaged radio praying for news. After eight days all they heard was that the search had been abandoned. The rescuers’ logic was that the snow had not melted at this time in the southern hemisphere spring. Quite simply, they hoped to find the bodies in December, when the snow melted.
The giving in to despair was only prevented by one young rugby player, Gustavo Nicholich, who called out to the others that this was good news. He then answered their incredulous looks with the defiant words “because we’re going to get out of here on our own.”
But how was this to be done? The first problem was staying alive. The survivors had extremely little food: 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 only solution was a grisly one. With food supplies running out, the only source of nourishment was the frozen corpses of the dead. Together the survivors began to debate whether they could take this terrible step.
Eventually, the decision was made. Devout Catholics, they compared it to the ritual of transubstantiation, though this must have been small comfort. No matter how horrible the deed, however, this drastic step did keep sixteen survivors alive.
Their numbers dwindled as time went by from the cold and bleakness of the mountain, and on 29 October an avalanche swept through the camp and killed eight survivors, including Nicholich and the rugby team’s captain Marcelo Perez.
Buried under snow for days, the small number who had survived watched Liliana Methol, the last woman among their number, die, and they feared suffocation themselves until one was able to poke a hole through the snow with a long metal pole. Despite yet more misfortune, the remaining men clung to life with desperate determination.
Soon, they decided, some of them would have to leave the dubious shelter of the wreckage and seek help. For if they didn’t then there would be no hope of rescue in these remote mountains.
After some deliberation, a group of the fittest and most able men were picked to strike out and search for help. They were given the best remaining food and the warmest clothes, and then set out on their journey.
To the west, on the Chile side of the mountains, there lay a peak so high that it seemed impassable for men without any proper mountain equipment, and the men headed east towards Argentina. There they found the plane’s tail. Inside and nearby, they found luggage containing a box of chocolates, three meat patties, a bottle of rum, cigarettes, extra clothes, comic books, and a little medicine.
Despondent, they returned to their huddled friends at the crash site, and told them that the great mountain to the west would have to be conquered if they were going to survive.
The main problem with that was the nights. The mountain was too big to scale in a day and outside the plane wreckage the bitter cold after sundown would kill any exposed man.
The only thing that the exhausted and malnourished men could do was build makeshift sleeping bags and send three rugby players, Roberto Canessa, Nando Parrado, and “Tintin” Vintinzin, out into the unknown.
Later the three men would describe their first night in the sleeping bags as the worst of their life, as death from exposure seemed a real possibility.
When the morning dawned, however, they were all still alive and able to go on. On the third day, despite almost running out of food and the perilously thin oxygen, the three men reached the summit of the mountain and saw the green lands beyond.
They sent Vintinzin back to the wreckage by sledge to get food, before beginning to descend the great peak.
Nine days into their great trek, Parrado and Canessa were below the snowline but collapsed by a river, too exhausted to go on. Then, suddenly, the bleary-eyed Canessa spotted what looked like a man on horseback across the river. Convinced that he was hallucinating, he beckoned to Parrado and the other man confirmed what he had thought.
That they were looking at men, not one but three riding their horses on the opposite bank. Over the noise of the river it was impossible to explain their predicament to the men, but they were just able to make out one of the horsemen promising to return the next day.
They waited for one more night and day, until the three men returned, threw them bread, and, even more crucially, paper and a pen. Parrado wrote what had happened, tied the paper to a rock and hurled it across the torrent.
The first horseman, a tough Chilean arriero or muleteer called Sergio Catalán, gave them a sign he had understood and galloped back west for many miles until he reached the police station at the town of Puente Negro and excitedly told them the amazing story of the crash survivors.
Against the odds
As the news slowly leaked out to an astonished world press, Parrado got into a helicopter with a rescue team and guided them through the mist-peaked mountains back to where his friends still waited in fearful anticipation.
The weather was again so bad that two trips on different days were needed to treat the survivors, but by the end of 23 December 1972 sixteen men had been saved from seemingly impossible odds.
They were treated in hospital for hypothermia and their various injuries and all lived to tell their tales to a world that was gripped by their great tale of survival and endurance. Canessa published a new book on his experiences this year and is now a well-respected and successful paediatric cardiologist in his native Uruguay.