Recalling the Andes Crash
Surviving an airplane crash—or any kind of accident, really—often turns on the most random twists of luck, like sitting in the only seat in an entire row that's otherwise shredded or being ejected and landing on something soft. But surviving the impact is one thing, living through an extended period without rescue is quite another and turns far less on luck than on determination, skill and above all sheer will to live.
One of the epic stories of survival is by now well known—the crash of Uruguayan Flight 571 in October, 1972 in the high Andes mountains near the Argentine/Chile border. There's a two-hour program running on The History Channel about this crash that's well worth the effort to see. The passengers endured two-and-half months of sub-zero cold, snow, avalanches and starvation that eventually led to the reason everyone remembers this crash: the survivors ate their dead comrades to sustain themselves.
But there's a more interesting aspect of this story that I had forgotten about, having read the book, Alive, by Piers Paul Read, shortly after it was published in 1974. The new documentary does a superb job of revealing how personal character—especially that of Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa—figured in the eventual rescue of 16 of the 45 people aboard the Fairchild turboprop.
First, why it crashed. It some ways, it foretold a nearly identical crash in Colombia in 1995 when the crew of an American Airlines 757 became confused about their position and descended into high terrain. Similarly, the crew of 571 thought they had passed a fix on the Chile side of the mountains and began a descent that was actually on the Argentine side of the range. The airplane skirted through a saddle but hit terrain that ripped its wings off and sent the fuselage hurtling down a steep snow field. That's the lucky part, at least for those who survived the initial impact.
As marooned people will do, the survivors improvised, invented and endured but when they heard the news on a portable radio that the search had been called off, they realized they were on their own. They likely would have died there had it not been for the determination of Parado and Canessa to hike out, an improbable 43-mile trek through some of the most remote and daunting mountains in the world. The interviews with Parado and Canessa—but especially Parado—are telling. He's clearly not like you or I. Well, maybe you, but I don't know I would have it in me to carry on in the face of such apparently hopeless odds. And that's the stuff real survivors are made of and perhaps the more important aspect of the story that was overshadowed by the anthropophagy.
It's a story worth hearing from the people who lived it.