Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, also known less formally as the Andes flight disaster, was an airline flight carrying 45 people that crashed in the Andes on October 13, 1972. The event was concluded by December 23, 1972 when the last of 16 survivors were rescued.
On Friday the 13th of October, 1972, a Uruguayan Air Force twin turboprop Fairchild FH-227D was flying over the Andes carrying Stella Maris College's "Old Christians" rugby union team from Montevideo, Uruguay to play a match in Santiago, Chile.
The trip had started the day before, October 12, when the Fairchild departed from Carrasco International Airport, but inclement mountain weather forced an overnight stop in Mendoza. After resuming the flight on the afternoon of October 13, the plane was soon flying through a pass in the mountains. The pilot then notified air controllers in Santiago that he was over Curicó, Chile and was cleared to descend. This would prove to be a fatal error. At Fairchild's ceiling of 29,500 feet, the plane could not fly directly from Mendoza, over the Andes, to Santiago. The pilots had to fly south from Mendoza along the Andes, then turn west towards the mountains, fly through the pass, cross the mountains and emerge on the Chilean side of the Andes south of Curico before finally turning north and initiating descent to Santiago after reporting passing Curico. Since the pass was covered by the clouds, the pilots had to rely on the usual time required to cross the pass. However, failing to take into account strong headwinds that ultimately slowed the plane and increased the time required to complete the crossing, the turn and descent was initiated too soon, right into the middle of the mountains. (CFIT)
Dipping into the cloud cover while still over the mountains, the Fairchild soon crashed on an unnamed peak (later called Cerro Seler, also known as Glaciar de las Lágrimas or Glacier of Tears), located between Cerro Sosneado and Volcán Tinguiririca, straddling the remote mountainous border between Chile and Argentina. The plane clipped the peak at 4200 m, neatly severing the right wing, which was thrown back with such a force that it cut off the vertical stabilizer, leaving a gaping hole in the rear of the fuselage. The plane then clipped a second peak which severed the left wing and left the plane as just a fuselage flying through the air. One of the propelers sliced through the fuselage as the wing it was attached to was severed. The fuselage hit the ground and slid down a steep mountain slope before finally coming to rest in a snow bank. The location of the crash site is 34º46'S 070º17'W.
Of the 45 people on the plane, 12 died in the crash or shortly thereafter; another 5 had died by the next morning, and one more succumbed to injuries on the eighth day. The remaining 27 faced hard survival issues high in the freezing mountains. Many had suffered injuries from the crash including broken legs from the aircraft's seats piling together. The survivors lacked equipment such as cold-weather clothing and footwear suitable for the area, mountaineering goggles to prevent snow blindness (although one of the eventual survivors, 24-year-old Adolfo "Fito" Strauch, devised a couple of sunglasses by using the sun visors in the pilot's cabin which did help protect their eyes from the sun). Most gravely, they lacked any kind of medical supplies, leaving the two freshman medical students on board who had survived the crash to improvise splints and braces with salvaged parts of what remained of the aircraft.
The others who had clustered around Roy, upon hearing the news, began to sob and pray, all except Parrado, who looked calmly up the mountains which rose to the west. Gustavo [Coco] Nicolich came out of the plane and, seeing their faces, knew what they had heard...[Nicolich] climbed through the hole in the wall of suitcases and rugby shirts, crouched at the mouth of the dim tunnel, and looked at the mournful faces which were turned towards him. 'Hey boys,' he shouted, 'there's some good news! We just heard on the radio. They've called off the search.' Inside the crowded plane there was silence. As the hopelessness of their predicament enveloped them, they wept. 'Why the hell is that good news?' Paez shouted angrily at Nicolich. 'Because it means,' [Nicolich] said, 'that we're going to get out of here on our own.' The courage of this one boy prevented a flood of total despair.
Even with this strict rationing, their food stock dwindled quickly. Furthermore, there was no natural vegetation or animals on the snow-covered mountain. The group thus survived by collectively making a decision to eat flesh from the bodies of their dead comrades. This decision was not taken lightly, as most were classmates or close friends. In his 2006 book, Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home, Nando Parrado comments 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 aluminium, plastic, ice, and rock.
All of the passengers were Roman Catholic, a point which was emphasized by Piers Paul Read in Alive. According to Read, some equated the act to the ritual of Holy Communion. Others initially had reservations, though after realizing that it was their only means of staying alive, changed their minds a few days later.
At Canessa's urging, the expeditionaries waited nearly seven weeks, to allow for the arrival of spring, and with it warmer temperatures. Although the expeditionaries were hoping to get to Chile, a large mountain lay due west of the crash site, blocking any effort made to walk in that direction. Therefore the expeditionaries initially headed east, hoping that at some point the valley that they were in would do a U-turn and allow them to start walking west. After several hours of walking east, the trio unexpectedly found the tail section of the plane, which was still largely intact. Within and surrounding the tail were numerous suitcases that had belonged to the passengers which contained cigarettes, candy, clean clothing and even some comic books. The group decided to camp there that night inside the tail section, and continue east the next morning. However, on the second night of the expedition, which was their first night sleeping outside exposed to the elements, the group nearly froze to death, and after some debate the next morning, decided that it would be wiser to return to the tail and remove the plane's batteries and bring them back to the fuselage so that they might power up the radio and make an SOS call to Santiago for help.
In his book, Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home, Nando Parrado would comment upon the making of the sleeping bag thirty-four years later:
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 took on the challenge. His mother had taught him to sew when he was a boy, and 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...C, Coche, Gustavo [Zerbino], and Fito turned out to be our best and fastest tailors.
After the sleeping bag was completed and another survivor, Numa Turcatti, died of his injuries, the hesitant Canessa was finally persuaded to set out, and the three expeditionaries took to the mountain on December 12th.
On December 12, 1972, some two months after the crash, Parrado, Canessa and Vizintín began their trek up the mountain. Parrado took the lead, and often had to be called to slow down, although the trek up the hill against gravity and in low-oxygen was difficult for all of them. Although it was still bitterly cold, the sleeping bag allowed them to live through the nights.
On the third day of the trek, Parrado reached the top of the mountain before the other two expeditionaries. What he saw literally took his breath away. Stretched before him as far as the eye could see were more mountains. In fact he had just climbed one of the mountains (as high as 4.800 metres) which forms the border between Argentina and Chile, meaning that they were still tens of kilometers from the red valley of Chile. However, after spying a small "Y" in the distance, he gauged that a way out of the mountains must lay beyond, and refused to give up hope. Knowing that the hike would take more energy than they'd originally planned for, Parrado and Canessa sent Vizintín back to the crash site, as they were rapidly running out of rations. Since the return was entirely downhill, it only took him one hour to get back to the fuselage on a sled made from broken parts of the plane.
So, Parrado and Canessa hiked for several more days. First, they were able to actually reach the narrow valley Parrado had seen on the top of the mountain, where they found the bed of Rio Azufre; then they followed the river and finally they reached the end of the snowline and, gradually, more and more signs of human presence, first some signs of camping and finally, on the ninth day, some cows freely breeding. That evening Parrado and Canessa set down to rest; they were very tired and deprived and Canessa seemed unable to proceed further. However, as Parrado was gathering wood to build a fire, Canessa noticed what looked like a man on a horse at the other side of the river, and yelled at the near-sighted Parrado to run down to the banks. At first it seemed that Canessa had been imagining the man on the horse, but eventually they saw three men on horseback. Divided by a river, Nando and Canessa tried to convey their situation to which one of them, a Chilean Huaso named Sergio Catalan, shouted "tomorrow." They knew at this point they would be saved and settled to sleep by the river.
During the evening dinner, Sergio Catalan discussed of the fact with the other huasos who then stayed in a little summer ranch called Los Maitenes. Someone did also remind that several weeks before the father of Carlos Paez, who was desperately searching for any possible news about the plane, had asked them about the Andes crash; however, the huasos could not imagine that someone could be still alive. Anyway, the next day Catalan took some loaves of bread and went to that place, where he found the two men who were still on the other side of the river, standing on their knees and asking for help. Catalan threw them the bread loaves, which they immediately ate. Afterwards, Parrado wrote, by using a red lipstick, a note telling them about the plane crash and asking for help; then he tied the paper to a rock and threw it back to Catalan, who read it and gave the boys the sign to have understood.
So, Catalan rode on horseback for many hours westwards to bring help. During the trip he saw another huaso on the south side of Rio Azufre and asked him to reach the boys and to bring them to Los Maitenes. Instead, he followed the river till the cross with Rio Tinguiririca, where, after passing a bridge he was able to reach the narrow route that linked the village of Puente Negro to the holidays resort of Termas del Flaco. Here he was able to stop a truck and reach soon the police station of Puente Negro, where the news was finally dispatched to the Army command in San Fernando and then to Santiago. Meanwhile, Parrado and Canessa were rescued and they reached Los Maitenes, where they were fed and allowed to rest.
The following day in the morning the rescue expedition left Santiago and, after a stop in San Fernando, moved eastwards. The two helicopters had to fly within the fog and reached a place near Los Maitenes just when Parrado and Canessa were passing there on horseback while going to Puente Negro. So, Nando Parrado was recruited to fly back to the mountain in order to guide the helicopters to the remaining survivors. The news that people had survived the October 13 crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 had also leaked to the international press and a flood of reporters also began to appear.
The following day, those remaining at the crash site heard on their radio that Parrado and Canessa had been successful in finding help and that afternoon, December 22, 1972, two helicopters carrying search and rescue climbers would arrive. However, the expedition (with Parrado onboard) was not able to reach the crash site until the afternoon, when it is very difficult to fly in the Andes. In fact the weather was horrible and the two helicopters were able to take only half of the survivors. They departed, leaving the rescue team and remaining survivors at the crash site to once again sleep in the fuselage, until a second expedition with helicopters could arrive in the morning of the following day. The second expedition arrived at daybreak on December 23, and with that, all sixteen survivors were rescued. All of the survivors were taken to hospitals in Santiago and treated for altitude sickness, dehydration, frostbite, broken bones, scurvy and malnutrition.
When first rescued, the survivors initially explained that they had eaten some cheese they had carried with them, planning to discuss the details in private with their families. However, they were pushed into the public eye when photos were leaked to the press and sensational, unauthorized articles were published.
The survivors held a press conference on December 28 at Stella Maris College, where they recounted the events of the past 72 days (over the years, they would also participate in the publication of two books, two films, and an official website about the event).
The rescuers later returned to the crash site and buried the bodies of the deceased under a pile of stones a half mile from the site. The grave was commemorated by an iron cross erected from the center of the stone pile. What remained of the fuselage was incinerated to thwart curiosity seekers.
We decided that this book should be written and the truth known because of the many rumors about what happened in the cordillera. We dedicate this story of our suffering and solidarity to those friends who died and to their parents who, at the time when we most needed it, received us with love and understanding.
A reprint was published in 2005 by Harper. It was re-titled: Alive: Sixteen Men, Seventy-two Days, and Insurmountable Odds -- The Classic Adventure of Survival in the Andes and includes a revised introduction as well as interviews with Piers Paul Read, Coche Inciarte, and Álvaro Mangino.
In fact, our survival had become a matter of national pride. Our ordeal was being celebrated as a glorious adventure...I didn't know how to explain to them that there was no glory in those mountains. It was all ugliness and fear and desperation, and the obscenity of watching so many innocent people die. I was also shaken by the sensationalism with which many in the press covered the matter of what we had eaten to survive. Shortly after our rescue, officials of the Catholic Church announced that according to church doctrine we had committed no sin by eating the flesh of the dead. As Roberto had argued on the mountain, they told the world that the sin would have been to allow ourselves to die. More satisfying for me was the fact that many of the parents of the boys who died had publicly expressed their support for us, telling the world they understood and accepted what we had done to survive...despite these gestures, many news reports focused on the matter of our diet, in reckless and exploitive ways. Some newspapers ran lurid headlines above grisly front-page photos. (247-8)
Nando Parrado served as a technical adviser to the film. Carlitos Páez (see: Casapueblo) and Ramon "Moncho" Sabella also visited the recreated fuselage during the shooting of the movie to aid with the historical accuracy of the set and to instruct the actors on how the events actually unfolded.