Uruguayan Air Force flight 571, popularly known as Miracle of the Andes, was an aircraft chartered by an Uruguayan amateur rugby team that crashed in the Andes Mountains of Argentina on October 13, 1972, and the wreckage was not found for over two months.
Of the 45 people aboard the plane, only 16 survived the ordeal. The incident garnered international attention, especially after it was revealed that the survivors had resorted to ‘cannibalism’.
The plane carrying the Old Christians rugby team and their friends and family went down in the foothills of Argentina, near the Chilean border, on October 13th, 1972.
The team was scheduled to fly from Montevideo, Uruguay, to Santiago, Chile, on the plane. The pilot radioed that he had reached Curicó, Chile, about 110 miles (178 kilometres) south of Santiago, and had headed north, about an hour after takeoff from Mendoza, where they had a halt due to adverse weather conditions.
The pilot, on the other hand, had underestimated the plane’s location, which was still in the Andes.
Controllers, unaware of the error, permitted him to begin lowering in preparation for landing. The Chilean control tower was unable to contact the jet shortly after.
Misery of the passengers
Twelve individuals died instantly, five more passed away within hours, and one more died a week later.
On the 17th day of their experience, tragedy struck again when an avalanche murdered eight more travellers. In the severe conditions, the survivors had little food and no source of heat.
The starved survivors resorted to eating corpses after a protracted discussion. They had to ‘survive’.
At the time of the accident, Canessa who was a 19-year-old medical student and rugby player and one of the survivors of the crash said, “I’ll never forget that first incision nine days after the accident.”
It was the fall into cannibalism that was the most difficult to bear.
Narrating the event Canessa said, “All we had to do was devour these dead bodies, and that was the end of it. Like any meat, the flesh provided protein and fat, which we required. It was also easy for me to make the initial cut because I was used to medical procedures. However, accepting it logically is only the first step. The next stage is to put it into action. And that was a difficult task. Because you’re so miserable and depressed about what you have to do, your mouth won’t open.”
The hike to save life
Days were difficult for each minute and seemed like a struggle. They did what they had to do to survive the harsh mountain region and consuming their friends was one of the toughest ordeals.
They were rescued 72 days later after survivors Dr Roberto Canessa, Nando Parrado, and Antonio Vizint travelled for ten days to seek aid, while those who stayed at the crash site were forced to consume the bodies of their dead comrades to survive.
During their journey through those high mountains without proper gear and warm clothes, the men were exhausted but didn’t lose hope. they had to find help.
Their will was strong and they proceeded up until on December 20, the guys came upon three herdsmen in the community of Los Maitenes, Chile, after a difficult hike. The Chileans, on the other hand, were on the other side of a river, which made it difficult to hear.
The herders came back the next day. The Chileans resurfaced early the next morning, and the two parties communicated by writing notes on paper, which they wrapped around a rock and tossed over the river.
They had made it! They had survived! It was a critical stage in the ordeal.
The authorities were contacted, and two helicopters were dispatched to the wreckage on December 22. Six survivors were taken to safety, but poor weather forced the other eight to wait until the next day to be rescued.
Canessa, who is now a paediatric cardiologist, attributes his survival to his family and his willingness to see them. “In these kinds of situations, it’s not how you survive but why you live,” he told People Magazine.
The ordeal inspired several books and films, including Piers Paul Read’s best-selling Alive (1974), which was recreated for the big screen in 1993. Several survivors also wrote novels about their ordeal.