The crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571

Updated: Jan 7, 2020


I’ve always had somewhat of an odd relationship with planes and flying. I love flying — at least the part in the air, the security not so much — but it also terrifies me. The latter, at least, is a feeling I’d imagine a lot of people share. Nobody wants to think about all the things that could go wrong — the worst of which, of course, would be the plane crashing.

But the human will is strong. This is the story of a plane crash that left survivors in a difficult situation — either die on the mountain where they were stranded, or resort to one of humanity’s oldest taboos. This is the story of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571.

Flight 571 was chartered by Uruguay’s Old Christians Club. The amateur rugby team was headed to Santiago, Chile to play in a match against one of their big rivals, Old Grangonian. According to alpineexpeditions.net, the trip spanned 1,500 kilometers (or about 311 miles) and was supposed to take around four hours. Friends and family members of the team were also brought on to help pay the cost of the plane. Altogether, the plane ended up with 40 passengers.

There are a few more things I feel I should point out before we move on. The first is just how young these passengers were. The team was affiliated with a high school, and most members were in their late teens or early twenties. At least one or two were med school students. The oldest passengers were a married couple, Javier and Liliana Methol. Liliana was 35 and Javier was 36 — still not very old at all.

I believe the school the rugby team was affiliated with was Stella Maris College, a Catholic school where many team members attended. Being American, I’m assuming South America uses the term “college” to mean what we would refer to as “high school.” In addition, all or at least most of the passengers were Catholic, which will become important later.

The plane took off from Montevideo, Uruguay, on October 12, 1972 with five crew members and 40 passengers. But what was supposed to be a four hour journey quickly went wrong. Due to bad weather, the plane had to stay overnight in Mendoza, Argentina.

At first, the passengers were annoyed at the unplanned layover because they’d get less time in Chile, and because they didn’t think the weather was that bad. But when they got there, they made the most of it and went out to explore the city. A girl some of the team members met that night joked about how their plane would crash when it took off the next day because it would be Friday the 13th, but nobody took it seriously.

The plane left Mendoza around 2:18 pm on Friday, October 13. Just over an hour after takeoff, the pilot mistakenly thought they had reached the Chilean city of Curicó and prepared the plane for landing. They were actually about 70 miles away from Curicó, close to the Chilean border but still in the remote mountains of western Argentina.

At about 3:30 pm, the plane’s right wing struck a mountain. The right wing, then the left wing and tail were ripped off before the plane fell on a remote mountain. The plane continued to skid for 5,000 feet before it stopped, about 11,500 feet (3,500 meters) up.

Years later, survivor Gustavo Zerbino would say the following about the crash:

"When the airplane fell, we felt a very strong impact. You think no one can survive after a plane crashes. You're expecting that final blow that will kill you. It's a terrifying thing."

Of the 45 people on board, 12 died in the crash, leaving the rest stranded in the snowy, remote Andes mountains. For the survivors, the real horror was just beginning.

At first, survivors thought they’d be rescued within a few hours, maybe a day. But one day turned into two, then three, then a week.

Gustavo Zerbino, a medical school student, tried tried to tend to the wounds of the injured passengers as best he could, with the help of another med school student, 19-year-old Roberto Canessa. But they couldn’t save everyone. On their first night of being stranded, five more people died, and at least one more in the ensuing days.

There were other early setbacks too. The cockpit had been crushed in the crash, but they did find the co-pilot in the wreckage, barely alive. He tried to tell them how to use the plane’s radio but could barely get the words out. I didn’t really find anything about him after this, and he was close to death, so I assume he died soon after this.

Four days after the crash, two planes flew overhead. The survivors tried to get their attention by waving their arms, but ultimately failed. They knew there had to be searches going on, but weren’t sure if rescuers would be able to find them.

Still, they did their best to make it with what they had. At first, they stayed inside the plane’s fuselage for warmth and subsisted on the plane’s meager food supply, which mostly consisted of chocolate and wine and only lasted them about a week. They tried to eat the leather from their suitcases, as well as shoes, wood and hair gel, but all proved inedible.

Still, many survivors stepped up and tried to make things just a bit easier in some pretty creative ways. They made knives out of plastic from the plane’s windows. Seat cushions were converted into snowshoes and sunglasses to shield their eyes were crafted from a sun visor, wire and a bra. They also tried to write ‘SOS’ in lipstick on fuselage roof but didn’t have enough lipstick. (Just a somewhat related side note: There were only five female passengers on the plane.)

There was also the issue of water. The human body needs more hydration in higher altitudes. They were surrounded by frozen water in the form of snow, but eating snow for hydration increased their chances of hypothermia. So a survivor took aluminum sheets from the back part of seats and held them up to the sun to melt snow for everyone to drink.

Like I said earlier, all or most of the passengers were Catholic. 18-year-old survivor Carlos Paez led the rest in a nightly rosary in the fuselage. They were clearly making the most out of their situation, doing what they could to survive, but there would be more than one setback in the weeks to come.

Meanwhile, several searches were being conducted for the missing plane. At least three separate countries led their own searches, and the Chilean Air Rescue Service held one as well. But it wasn’t long before they began to lose hope. The plane was 70 miles off location when it crashed, and searchers quickly realized they were looking in the wrong location — and had no idea where to look. They also realized it would be difficult to spot the white plane in the white snow.

Most sources I read said the search was called off after eight days. Since there were multiple searches mentioned, I’m not sure which search was called off — though another source said three countries called off their searches after this time. Regardless, at least one search continued on the ground, and a psychic was recruited to help by some of the parents of the crash victims.

photo: Wagner T. Cassimiro “Aranha”

Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License

From everything I’ve read, the most tenacious searcher was Carlos Paez’s father, a well-known Chilean artist named Paez Vilaro. Vilaro went to villages in Chile asking people if they’d seen signs of a plane crash, and offered a cash reward. People thought he was crazy for continuing to search for the people they were sure were dead. But he never gave up.

But on October 23, ten days after the crash the survivors heard a radio broadcast that “the” search (whichever one it was) had been called off. At first, they were angry, but quickly realized they’d have to take action themselves if they wanted to survive.

One survivor you’ll be hearing a lot about is then 22-year-old Nando Parrado. Parrado’s mother and sister had been on the plane with him. His mother died in the crash, and Parrado got a head injury in the ensuing chaos and almost died himself. Someone thought to lay his head on a patch of ice, which ultimately saved his life. He regained consciousness three days after the crash, but his sister, Suzy, later died in his arms.

When Parrado heard the radio broadcast, he was sure they were all going to die on the mountain. But if that was going to happen, he wanted to die fighting.

It’s not 100 % clear who brought up the topic of cannibalism first. Different sources name different people — one names Parrado, one names Roberto Canessa, and another names someone else entirely. It’s also not clear when it was brought up — some sources say it was before this radio broadcast, some say it was because of it, and some say it was afterward. But one thing that seems to be clear no matter what you read is that more than one survivor was entertaining the thought from pretty early on. Remember, their food supply ran out after the first week or so, maybe eight days at the most. But whoever brought it up, the others were relieved that at least some of them seemed to be on the same page.

At some point, Parrado thought back to the plane’s pilot and co-pilot, who were already dead. He turned to one of his teammates and told him he wanted to eat the pilot.

Roberto Canessa later said this about the first time the team decided to eat human flesh:

“Our common goal was to survive — but what we lacked was food. We had long since run out of the meagre pickings we’d found on the plane, and there was no vegetation or animal life to be found. After just a few days we were feeling the sensation of our own bodies consuming themselves just to remain alive. Before long we would become too weak to recover from starvation.

We knew the answer, but it was too terrible to contemplate.

The bodies of our friends and team-mates, preserved outside in the snow and ice, contained vital, life-giving protein that could help us survive. But could we do it?

For a long time we agonised. I went out in the snow and prayed to God for guidance. Without His consent, I felt I would be violating the memory of my friends; that I would be stealing their souls.

We wondered whether we were going mad even to contemplate such a thing. Had we turned into brute savages? Or was this the only sane thing to do? Truly, we were pushing the limits of our fear.”

He would also refer to the decision as “our final goodbye to innocence.”

The survivors started with the bodies of the pilot and co-pilot since they didn’t know them very well. Nando Parrado later said that when he first ate human flesh, it had no taste. Carlos Paez said it had “roughly the same flavor” as steak tartare. Gustavo Zerbino said human flesh tasted just like other meat but slightly sweeter.

But not everyone was immediately on board with the idea. The Methols, Javier and Liliana, were initially reluctant but ultimately partook in cannibalism. Javier convinced himself to do it for the couple’s four children, who he believed God wanted him to see again. Liliana was told to see it as somewhat of a Holy Communion. Another woman died 60 days after the crash, presumably because she couldn’t bring herself to eat human flesh and subsequently starved to death.

But Nando Parrado would always defend his decision. He says the survivors made a pact to “donate” their bodies. He would go on to say: “If I die please use my body so at least one of us can get out of here and tell our families how much we love them."

Carlos Paez also said he never felt guilty for engaging in cannibalism because they would have died otherwise. He also convinced some of the other survivors to eat flesh because it had proteins they needed. All of the survivors ended up eating human flesh at least once, and often passed around a tube of toothpaste afterward for “dessert.”

But even with their newfound food source, the setbacks continued. On October 29, an avalanche tumbled down the mountain and hit the fuselage. Eight more people were killed in this avalanche. Among the casualties were team captain Marcelo Perez del Castillo as well as Liliana Methol, the last of the five female passengers to die.

And there was the cold. Temperatures on the mountain sometimes fell as low as -22 degrees Fahrenheit (-30 degrees celsius). It was warm when the plane took off from Montevideo, and the heaviest clothes anyone had were sports jackets. They also needed more calories than even human flesh would provide — humans actually require more caloric intake at higher altitudes. Nando Parrado ended up losing more than 97 pounds (44 kilograms) over the course of their time on the mountain.

And there was still the looming fact that rescue didn’t seem to be coming anytime soon — and that looking for the plane was probably like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. Several treks out were attempted, either to find the plane’s tail or possibly to find civilization. At one point, Gustavo Zerbino and two other men went up to the top of the mountain, thinking they’d be able to see Chile. But all they saw was snow in every direction.

On November 17, Nando Parrado, Roberto Canessa and another man named Antonio Vizintin set out to find help, hoping to reach Chile. They found the tail of the plane, which had fresh batteries for their radio. But the batteries couldn’t be carried back to base camp because they were so big. So on the 19th, they went back to base camp to get the radio so they could use the batteries. They tried to connect the batteries to the radio but it didn’t work. (Another source said they came back five days later.)

By December, warmer weather had caused a lot of snow on the mountain to melt, making a possible trek for help a bit easier. So the three men decided to go out again. They left on December 12, taking a sleeping bag along with a three day supply of “food” (human flesh) packed in socks. Before he left, Parrado authorized the group to eat the bodies of his mother and sister.

There’s conflicting information on why Parrado chose December 12. One source said he didn’t want to wait too long to trek back out because he didn’t want to be too weak to make the trip. Another said the death of a passenger named Numa actually convinced them to leave on the 12th. So I’m not exactly sure what their reasoning was. But this trip would prove to be very important.

Meanwhile, despite official searches being called off, Paez Vilaro continued to look for his son and the other missing passengers. At some point in December, members of the Chilean Air Force saw a cross in the snow and both they and Vilaro thought it might have been made by survivors. But it turned out to have nothing to do with them — it was actually a device used by Argentinian officials to measure snow levels.

Back in the mountains, Antonio Vizintin ended up walking back to the base camp later, and his companions pressed on. Like I said earlier, Nando Parrado had been traveling with his mother and sister, who had both died. But his father and at least one other sibling were still back home in Uruguay. The thought of seeing his father again motivated him to keep going. Roberto Canessa thought of his own mother as well as his girlfriend, who presumably were both back home in Montevideo, to keep him going.

But the trip was much further than they expected. Parrado wondered what would happen if Canessa broke his leg — would he carry him, or leave him behind and continue on? At one point, the men were sure they’d die, but pressed on anyway.

By December 20, Nando Parrado had walked 38 miles in worn out rugby shoes. But all his efforts were about to pay off.

That day, they encountered a group of men who have been described by some sources as “ranchers” and others as “herdsmen.” I assume the two terms are similar. At first, it was hard to communicate with them because they were on the opposite side of a river. Around 8 pm, one of the ranchers shouted at them “tomorrow!”

The next day, Parrado and Canessa met back up with the ranchers and communicated with them by writing notes explaining their situation, tying them to stones and throwing them across the river.

One of the notes, the most well-known one, reads as follows, though I’m not sure exactly who wrote it:

“I come from a plane that crashed in the mountains. I am Uruguayan. We have been walking for 10 days. I have a wounded friend up there. There are 14 injured people still in the plane. We have to get out of here quickly and we don’t know how. We have no food. We are weak. When are you going to come for us? Please, where are we?”

(I know there’s a discrepancy here with the dates. Most sources said the two men set out on December 12th and wrote this note on December 21st. That would be nine days, not ten. I’m not sure what happened here. It’s possible the sources I read got it wrong. It’s also possible Parrado and/or Canessa lost track of the days on their journey and thought they’d been walking for 10 days when they’d actually been walking for eight or nine.)

The ranchers contacted police, and Parrado and Canessa were rescued. Back at camp, the remaining 14 survivors had found a smaller radio that worked. They heard about rescue on the news via this radio.

On December 22, helicopters were flown to the site of the crash. Six survivors were rescued that day, the remaining eight the next day. Altogether, out of the 45 people on the plane, 16 had survived — Parrado, Canessa and the 14 survivors they’d left behind. The men still on the mountain had been stranded there for 72 days. Their rescue was seen as a Christmas miracle.

The rescue made international news, and all 16 survivors became instant celebrities. But reactions to their ordeal were mixed. Some regarded them as heroes, brave men who had beaten the odds and survived a terrible situation. But when the survivors admitted to cannibalism, there was backlash from many fellow Catholics, who considered it a grave sin regardless of circumstances. One survivor told the media they were inspired by the last supper, which seemed to quell things a bit. A Catholic priest later told them eating the flesh was okay in their circumstances because they would have died otherwise. The Catholic church later absolved them of any sins.

I’m not Catholic, and the idea of cannibalism being sinful was new to me, so I don’t want to speak for them. But judging by the research I did for this video, it seems to be something still debated by Catholics. So I’m not sure how representative this backlash was of all Catholics or the Catholic church.

In 1973, 11 of the mothers whose children had died on the mountain funded a library called “Our Sons” in the Carrasco neighborhood where most of the passengers had lived. In 1975, the book Alive was published. Author Piers Paul Read interviewed the survivors for the book and became close to them. But once the book was released, they had problems with his descriptions of them eating human flesh. They thought he’d painted them in a bad light and were afraid there would be more public backlash. He didn’t change details, and survivors eventually came around. The only survivor who never had issues with the book was Nando Parrado.

Others were upset that survivors profited from the book, as well as public appearances and interviews. They believed they were profiting off a tragedy. (As of 2010, Parrado got 200 speaking requests a year.)

Nando Parrado

Despite the public eye on them, as well as the controversy, most survivors slowly began fading from the spotlight and lived out relatively normal lives. All of them still live in the same neighborhood of Montevideo, and they remain friends to this day. They try to get together every year on December 22, the anniversary of their rescue. They also stayed in touch with Sergio Catalán, one of the ranchers who rescued them.

The people who died in the crash — or in the ensuing weeks — were buried at the site of the plane. Some survivors don’t want to return to the site of the crash, but others make the trip there regularly to visit their loved ones’ graves. People from around the world also visit the memorial, despite the long and difficult trek up.

In 1992, plans were made for a Life magazine article on the story. The survivors signed a contract with the magazine that said they couldn’t talk to any other news organizations about the crash, and would get a percentage of foreign sales money from the issue, which was released in February 1993. They said they signed this contract so they wouldn’t get “overrun” by reporters. Later that year, the movie adaptation of the book Alive was released, with Ethan Hawke playing Nando Parrado.

In October 2012, 40 years after the crash, the survivors flew to Santiago to play a match against the Old Grangonian team they were supposed to play all those years ago. An anniversary ceremony saw military jets dropping parachutists draped in Chilean and Uruguayan flags as well as framed photographs of victims who had died. (Another source said there’s a rugby match in Chile every year.)

In 2006, a foundation called Fundación Viven was established. This translates to “Living Foundation.” It was formed in memory of crash and people who died. Their mission is “to encourage the essential values of the human spirit, to work toward creating change that will have a positive impact on society.”

Roberto Canessa’s girlfriend, who he thought of to get through the ordeal, later became his wife. Canessa is now a pediatric cardiologist and believes he was spared so he could help the children he regularly works with.

After surviving the crash but losing his wife, Javier Methol went back to his old job at a cigarette company and, like many survivors, also became a public speaker. He remarried and had four more children with his new wife. He died in 2015 at the age of 79, the first (and, so far, only) survivor to later die.

There are tons upon tons of movies, TV specials, books and documentaries about the crash — way too many to go through here, but I do want to highlight a few of them. The most known ones, of course, are Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors by Piers Paul Read as well as the movie adaptation.

Several of the survivors have also written their own books. Nando Parrado recounted his story in Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and my Long Trek Home. Roberto Canessa’s book is titled I Had to Survive: How a Plane Crash in the Andes Inspired My Calling to Save Lives.

Another survivor named Eduardo Strauch gave his own account in Out of the Silence: After the Crash. Strauch decided to tell his story when a mountaineer found his jacket and wallet at the crash scene and returned them to him.

There are also plenty of noteworthy documentaries. I Am Alive: Surviving the Andes Plane Crash premiered on the History Channel in 2010 and marked the first time Parrado actually appeared on camera to talk about the crash.

Another documentary has a somewhat darker story to it. In I Am Alive: Surviving the Andes Plane Crash, a photograph of some of the survivors appears. In the bottom right corner of the photo, you can see what appears to be a human spine.

According to The New York Post, this is an actual photo from the crash and the spine is real. Others online have debated this. Since it was featured in a documentary, it’s possible that it was a reenactment. I haven’t seen the documentary, so I can’t say for sure.

Another documentary is Stranded: I’ve Come from a Plane that Crashed on the Mountains. I assume this title was taken from one of the notes Parrado and Canessa wrote to the ranchers who rescued them. Some of the footage from the 40th anniversary rugby match was featured in this documentary. The movie’s cinematographer, Cesar Charlone, is a friend of Nando Parrado. It’s the only movie made about the crash that had the blessing of all the survivors.

One more documentary I want to mention is an episode of the National Geographic show called Trapped that you can watch on YouTube. There’s also an album called Miracle In The Andes: Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571. The music was written by composer and artist Adam Young and is available on several different platforms.

So that’s just about all I have for you today on the crash of Flight 571. Obviously this story is very dark, but also inspiring. As I researched, I couldn’t help but be in awe of these 16 men who defied the odds and survived something most people didn’t expect them to survive.

So what do you think of this story? Do you think you’d be able to engage in so-called “survival cannibalism” if you were in the same situation? Let me know in the comments.

Protected under Fair Use: https://fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/fair-use/what-is-fair-use/

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