The Story of Survival Behind History’s Most Notorious Case of Cannibalism

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

High up in the harsh, unforgiving environment of the Andes, a group of men – the survivors of a plane crash – contemplate an unimaginable decision. Cold, injured, hungry beyond the point of endurance and with no prospect of rescue, they must make a choice: either starve to death, or get the sustenance that they so desperately need from the only source of food available to them.

Around the crash site, the bodies of the men’s friends and fellow passengers lie frozen, conserved in the snow. It is to these bodies – specifically, their flesh – that the men must turn if they are to have any hope of surviving their horrendous ordeal.

Flight 571 started off in unremarkable circumstances. On October 13, 1972 – a Friday – the Old Christians Club rugby team leased a Fairchild FH227-D from the Uruguayan Air Force to take them from Montevideo, Uruguay to a match scheduled to take place in Santiago, Chile.

However, after adverse weather conditions compelled them to stop for a night in Mendoza, Argentina, the Andes still stood between those on the flight and their destination.

Because of the bad weather, and with a maximum flying altitude of around 30,000 feet, the plane was not able to travel straight over the mountain range from Mendoza. Instead, the aircraft was to fly south, parallel with the Andes, before turning to head west through the low Planchón pass and into Chile.

While the plane was above the snowy mountains, though, tragedy struck. With the pass obscured by cloud cover, the pilots were forced to navigate by dead reckoning, using timings rather than sight to find the way for the aircraft. But their estimates were off, meaning that the plane descended too early and crashed into a then nameless peak. Twelve of the 45 people on board lost their lives that day.

Later, in honor of those who had died, the deadly peak was named Glaciar de las Lágrimas, meaning “Glacier of Tears.” Indeed, in the hours that followed the crash, a further five passengers died, with another passing away on the eighth day.

Left to fend for themselves in the extremely harsh mountain conditions – 11,800 feet above sea level and with no source of heat – survival was incredibly tough for those who remained. A number of them had suffered debilitating injuries such as broken legs, and they lacked sufficient supplies or adequate clothing for the freezing environment.

What’s more, although search parties from Uruguay, Chile and Argentina had been dispatched to look for survivors, the plane’s white fuselage made it indistinguishable from the snow on all sides of the crash site. Attempts by the survivors to write an SOS message on the roof of the craft proved futile, and after a mere eight days the search was halted.

Through a transistor radio salvaged from the wreckage, the survivors heard the shattering news. Yet in a bid to raise morale, one of them, Gustavo Nicolich, announced the new development with optimism, declaring it good news because, as he put it, “It means that we’re going to get out of here on our own.”

In spite of the survivors’ courage, though, their situation went from bad to worse. Having lived through the crash and its immediate aftermath, a further eight people – including Nicolich – were killed when an avalanche struck the section of fuselage that they were using for shelter, submerging it in several feet of snow.

As days turned into weeks, the meager rations of food that the survivors had recovered from the plane were dwindling. And despite repeated and increasingly desperate searches of the fuselage for food – and even attempts to eat bits of leather ripped from scraps of luggage – nothing of any worth could be found. The threat of death by starvation thus loomed over the survivors.

As survivor Nando Parrado put it in his memoir, Miracle In The Andes: 72 Days On The Mountain And My Long Trek Home, “Again and again I came to the same conclusion: unless we wanted to eat the clothes we were wearing, there was nothing but aluminum, plastic, ice, and rock.”

Slowly, the horrible truth began to dawn on the remaining number: with nothing else to eat on the mountain and no hope of rescue, they would have to turn to the most gruesome of last resorts in order to survive: cannibalism.

Because the bodies of those who’d died in the crash had been preserved by the freezing conditions, human flesh was the one food source that the survivors had in abundance. And although the thought of it turned their stomachs, it became clear to them that this previously unthinkable act was the only thing that stood between them and certain death.

“It was repugnant,” recalled survivor Dr. Roberto Canessa, who was a 19-year-old medical student at the time the disaster occurred. “Through the eyes of our civilized society it was a disgusting decision. My dignity was on the floor having to grab a piece of my dead friend and eat it in order to survive.”

Two months in the wake of the crash, with all hope of rescue long since abandoned, Parrado, Canessa and Antonio Vizintin started out in search of help. However, upon Parrado getting to the summit of the first mountain, he was greeted not by any welcome glimpse of civilization but instead with a bleak vista of further mountainous terrain, extending as far as it was possible to see.

Low on rations and facing a far longer trek than they had initially anticipated, Parrado and Canessa sent Vizintin back to the camp and continued on their mission.

Finally, they encountered a Chilean horseman, one Sergio Catalan, and were at last able to notify the authorities of the survivors’ whereabouts. Helicopters were dispatched to the crash site, and 16 men returned home alive to tell their incredible and awful tale.

While the story of the passengers of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 is first and foremost one of unbelievable endurance and survival against the odds, the memories of what the men had to do to make it out alive remain with them to this day.

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