To survive a devastating airplane accident, the deadly winter of the Andes mountain range and on top of everything, having to eat human flesh in order to survive, are all traumatic experiences capable of destroying, or reaffirming a person’s bond to humankind.
“Ché, aren’t we flying a little too close to the mountains?”
This phrase announced that the lives of 45 people onboard an Uruguayan Air Force plane headed to Chile’s capital, Santiago, approximately 34 years ago, would change forever.
The majority of the passengers were 19 to 25 year old Uruguayans, who played rugby for the Old Christian team. The rest of the crew was made up of family members and friends. Instead of taking the habitual four and a half hours to land in Chile, the journey took 72 days. This story of survival, brotherhood, and faith is known as the Miracle of the Andes.
Now, more than three decades later, Roberto Canessa, one of the survivors, is a pediatric cardiologist, who besides treating patients in a clinic in Montevideo, also leads lectures on leadership and overcoming life obstacles around the world. From the day he was rescued until now, Canessa continues to offer counseling to the public as a speaker in different universities, the media, and other organizations. His popularity is so widespread that several years ago he was even named candidate for the presidency of his country.
Nowadays Roberto lives with his wife Laura, his soul companion ever since he was 15. He has three children; and the eldest, Ilario, was named precisely after the Andean mountain where the accident survivors were rescued.
His Old Christian teammates are still his closest friends, live in the same neighborhood as him, and continue to celebrate every 21st of December together as the day in which they were “born again”.
The following story is a first account of Canessa’s experience as a survivor of the Andean miracle.
Sitting on his seat onboard the aircraft everything seemed normal to Roberto. In a matter of seconds the snow and dense clouds limited the pilot’s visibility. Apparently he assumed that they had already crossed the mountain range, although they were actually in front of the peaks. Immediately, a strong bang caused the right wing of the airplane to dislodge, fly over the rest of the aircraft, and tear the tail off, leaving a huge hole in the back part of what was left of the jet. Several passengers who were suctioned into the rear of the plane were instantly killed and disappeared into the immensity of the snowy Andes, alongside other parts of the aircraft.
Moments later, the left wing broke into two pieces and one of the blades of the propeller scratched the remaining parts of the plane. Many passengers became trapped in their seats. Thirteen died instantly. Another group was severely wounded. Broken legs, head gashes, hemorrhages, and iron pieces of the aircraft protruding through torsos and other body parts became the sight of the day. “I heard a whistle in the air and this is when I noticed that the body of the aircraft had begun to slide down the snow like a sleigh for six seconds. I remember the exact time it took because one of the guys was praying the Ave Maria, which lasts six seconds”, said 53 year old Canessa.
After those six seconds all that remained was a great silence. Canessa, who at that time was a first year medical student, thought that he too had been shredded to pieces, and had lost his arms and legs. To his surprise, he had survived and was in relatively good shape, and without thinking twice, he began helping his mates. Although his medical knowledge didn’t exceed the study of cells, he began healing his friends’ wounds and taking out the corpses that remained inside the aircraft. It was the first time in his life to witness such a direct contact with death. Many of the survivors thought that the ambulances would arrive right away, alongside the police and rescue team. Unfortunately, hours later they began realizing that no one would find them and it was themselves who would have to find an exit. They began feeling like impotent ants amidst an infinite extension of snow. Everything was lost. There was no food or water, apart from a couple of chocolate bars and several bottles of wine. It was October 12, 1972.
“When you’re nineteen you feel omnipotent, and as though you are capable of anything”. Maybe it was that precise feeling that kept the Old Christian team players from giving up. The next day, roles were distributed and assigned according to each of the players’ skills. They had a great yearning for life.
Adolfo Strauch, one of the players, invented a water converter by melting ice over a piece of aluminum and placing it facing the sun. The team captain, Marcelo Perez, was in charge of the daily” food” distribution: one or two pieces of chocolate and less than one third of a glass of wine for each person. The freezing cold temperatures in the middle of the snowy mountain range reached negative 40 degrees Celsius. The lack of winter clothes and food made nighttime seem like an eternity. The shortage of oxygen due to high altitude caused dizziness and disorientation. Hunger and weakness, together with the inevitable irritability seemed to increase with the passing of the days. People continued to drop dead one after the other, and so did the hope of survival. “It was like sleeping in a cemetery”, remembers Canessa.
Despite the little possibilities of being rescued in such a situation, the boys fought fiercely for survival. They pulled off seat covers and used them as blankets, sleeping bags were made and tied, sunglasses were assembled to protect their eyes from the daytime glare, and money was burnt to make fire. This was how a society that functioned with improvised laws, was created, where everyone was assigned roles and each person was worth what he or she was capable of doing to survive. “It was like being in a test tube. If was as though this were an experiment in which we had to transform an inorganic and negative thirty degree-temperature place, where all we could see were stones and snow, into an environment suitable for human beings to live in”.
On the tenth day after the accident one of the team players heard on the airplane radio that their search had been suspended. He reunited the rest of his mates and said: “I have some good news for your guys. If we want to get out of here, we will have to do it on our own”.
Aside from how surreal and traumatic this experience proved to be, the team´s sense of humor was always present. They arrived to the Andes as friends and left as brothers. In spite of the crisis the players managed to find time to joke around, celebrate birthdays, sing, and even pray together. All in all they tried to have the best time possible. According to Roberto what really kept the survivors united and hopeful was the fact that each person held on tight to their reason for living. “Mine was saving my mother the grief of losing a child. I kept thinking that if I had to eat a piece of human flesh in order to return to my mother, I’d do whatever; I’ll eat the plane if I have to”.
And this was exactly how the inconceivable happened. One Sunday morning a meeting took place in the interior of the aircraft in which the survivors decided that the only alternative left to save themselves from the mountains and not die from frostbite and/or hunger was to use the dead bodies as nourishment. Holding on to a great feeling of humiliation, Canessa took a piece of glass and cut the first slice. At that moment he stopped to think: “What evil could I have possibly done to have God make me do this?” The worst thing of all according to him was having to invade the privacy and body of his friends. In spite of this, he comforted himself thinking that if it was he who had died and his friends would’ve used his own body as food, he would’ve felt proud to be able to help them.
Although many believe that eating human flesh is what saved them, this is far from true. Even after consuming the meat, little did their reality change. The freezing weather continued to penetrate their bodies and so did their misery. The consumption of human flesh simply elongated their hours and helped strengthen their bodies a bit. Later on this became a part of their routine. And so the days continued to pass in the middle of the Andes. The boys began hiking as a means to look for an exit from those deadly mountains. They tied pillows to their feet in order to prevent themselves from sinking into the snow, and only came back even weaker and returned empty-handed.
Finally, a sunny day arrived and it became evident that winter was reaching its end. Roberto and his two friends, Nando and Tintin, decided to test their luck for the last time. They collected some human flesh cut into pieces and sleeping bags, and tied them in a sack. After walking for ten days they sighted the peak of a snow-less mountain. They hiked up to a valley and saw vegetation for the first time in two and a half months. They heard a stream and ran to eat some leaves in the distance.
That night they slept amidst the valley and a feeling of newly found peace. The next morning a couple of cows greeted them; later on an empty can of soup, and in the distance a couple of farmers. Civilization was near. They had finally reached their safeguard, as well as for the rest of the crew waiting back in the plane, who were rescued by helicopter hours later by local authorities. It was the 21st of December, 1972.
Article published in El Nuevo Dia newspaper (in Spanish)
San Juan, Puerto Rico
December 2, 2006
By: Sarah V. Platt