Survival Stories #4: Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 Andes Rugby Team Disaster

August 25, 2009

I'm Cade Courtley, Navy SEAL and host of Spike TV’s Surviving Disaster. I've heard a lot of great survival accounts over the years.  However, these 10 individual narratives represent true self-preservation through instinct, and a never-say-die attitude. This list is a chronicle--a testament--of what I find most impressive in defining true individual strength and human perseverance.  These few did not just lead to legend, but more importantly and most basic, survival.

On October 12th, 1972, the “Old Christians” rugby team boarded an Air Force jet in Montevideo, Uruguay for a match in Santiago, Chile. Not only would the ill-fated team not make the game, they were about to begin a nightmarish ordeal that would last several months and shake the players to their very core.

Faced with inclement weather over the Argentinian city of Mendoza, the pilot made an unscheduled landing for the evening. Upon takeoff the next day, the weather wasn’t much better, and even though Captain Julio Cesar Ferradas had clocked thousands of hours of flying experience (including 29 flights across the Andes alone), the ferocity of the storm proved too much for the pilot. While attempting to pass over the mountain range, the right wingtip of the jet crashed into the mountain, causing the wing to damage the tail of the plane. When the left wing of the plane also separated from the jet, the fuselage careened into the mountain slope at 217 miles per hour.

Upon impact, 12 of the 45 passengers were killed instantly or shortly thereafter, with an additional five perishing within the next day. Though the remaining 27 passengers still awaited rescue, they surely had no idea of the harrowing ordeal that faced them in the coming days and weeks.

Not only did many of the survivors have serious injuries, they were at all equipped for the extreme cold of their mountaintop location. Lacking clothing, footwear, and other equipment needed to brave the fierce winds of the Andes, the survivors quickly realized they would need to think…and think fast.

Two first-year medical students who were among the survivors improvised makeshift medical care for the fallen, salvaging pieces of the aircraft for improvised splints and braces for the injured. Sun visors from the cabin of the jet were fashioned into homemade sunglasses to protect against the extreme glare of the sun high in the Andes.

But unfortunately for the survivors, the white color of the jet blended into the snowy backdrop of the mountain, severely hampering the efforts of the search and rescue parties. Eight days after the initial crash, the search was called off entirely, which the survivors soon learned from a small transistor radio in the plane.

Facing abandonment in one of the earth’s more extreme climates, the remaining players despaired over their fate. With rationed food quickly dwindling, the situation grew increasingly dim. Faced with the gruesome realization that they would all die without nourishment, the remaining survivors collectively made the grim decision to eat the flesh of their fallen brothers. The decision to resort to cannibalism was not an easy one, but the group soon came to realize that there was simply no other option.

The survivors’ bad luck showing no sign of abatement, disaster struck yet again when an avalanche on October 29th killed eight players who had been sleeping in the fuselage of the plane. Their numbers further reduced, the remaining players quickly realized that there was no hope of survival unless they were able to hike out of their mountaintop grave.

On December 12, nearly two months after the crash, Fernando Parrado, Roberto Canessa,  and Antonio Vizintín began their trek over the mountain. Heading upwards through the low-oxygen climate, Parrado was the first to reach the top. Seeing what appeared to be an endless range of peaks before him, Parrado soon noticed a glimmer of hope with a path to a valley in the distance.

Realizing that escape was possibly within sight, Parrado and Canessa sent Vizintín back to the crash site, where he would remain for the rest of the ordeal due to Parrado and Canessa’s dwindling rations. The remaining two continued their trek down the mountain. Within several days, Parrado and Canessa were able to reach the valley. Walking along the Rio Azufre river valley, the two eventually encountered signs of life, including camping equipment and farm animals.

While building a fire at a campsite one evening, Parrado and Canessa noticed what appeared to be man on horseback in the distance. Running closer toward the man, they realized that he was one of several cowboys working in the area. The cowboy, Sergio Catalan, yelled to Parrado and Canessa that he would return the next day with help.

The following day, Catalan returned to Parrado and Canessa with loaves of bread, and the two survivors indicated to the cowboy that their comrades on the mountain still needed rescue. Heading out on horseback, Catalan eventually reached a local holiday resort named Termas del Flaco, where he was able to find a police station. Parrado and Canessa were rescued in the meantime, and the news of the survivors was relayed to nearby Army command.

The following day, a team of rescuers headed east toward the crash site. Flying through dense fog, two helicopter pilots realized that they were able to perch their aircraft close enough for a mountaintop rescue. On December 23, over two months since the harrowing ordeal began, the 16 remaining survivors were spirited away from the mountain and sent to area hospitals.

The bizarre story of the unknown survivors quickly blanketed the international media, with dozens of reporters heading to the region in hopes of interviewing Parrado and Canessa about the crash and its aftermath. Much to the chagrin of the survivors, word quickly leaked about the unspeakable events that unfolded in the aftermath of the crash.

Naturally, the public’s fascination, particularly with the cannibalism among the survivors, led to the Andes flight disaster being one of the most infamous plane crashes in the history of aviation. But beyond the gruesome details of how the survivors managed to stay alive is a heroic tale of strength, endurance, and perseverance against overwhelming odds.

Stay tuned to as I’ll be unveiling the top 10 most inspiring survival stories one-by-one over the following weeks.



Want more? Check out Survival Story #5: Apollo 13


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