Recalling the Andes Crash

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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.

Comments (9)

I saw that show a little while back. I was transfixed. Of course one never knows how they'll handle a situation like that until they're in it, but I'd hope that I'd have the determination to do what those two men did.

Of course, that also inspires me to pay more attention to survival preparation. One of my best frineds and I recently went on an airplane safari. That involved driving over the Cascades to go look at some 195's that he was interested in buying. Although the weather forcast was for 45-50F or so weather, and rain rather than snow in the passes we still made sure we had sleeping bags, warm clothes, water and food that could last us for several days at a pinch.

One website that I do like is equipped.com. They have a lot of great information for GA pilots on survival equipment and techniques.

Posted by: Andrew Upson | January 20, 2011 12:20 AM    Report this comment

I have searched The History Channel for this show but can only find a DVD for sale? Is it currently running and what title, time and date will it be shown?

Thanks, Steve

Posted by: Steve Berry | January 20, 2011 8:08 AM    Report this comment

I Am Alive: Surviving The Andes Plane Crash

Don't know whether it will be shown again soon.

Posted by: Bruce Marshall | January 20, 2011 12:29 PM    Report this comment

Just checked DirecTV which should look out about two weeks and I didn't see it. Netflix lists it but with an unknown availability date. Added it, just gonna have to wait a while I guess. Thanks Paul for the suggestion.

Posted by: Grant Carruthers | January 20, 2011 4:37 PM    Report this comment

I'll see if I can track this down.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 21, 2011 4:53 AM    Report this comment

It's on the traditional "torrent" sites...

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 25, 2011 8:04 PM    Report this comment

I am not certain, but I believe History will air the special again coinciding with the release of the DVD, which is Feb. 22nd. It will also be available on NetFlix after that date (the DVD has several interesting bonus features, including a closer look at the artifacts left at the crash site). If I hear anything regarding a more recent broadcast I will post that info here. Thanks to all of you for your interest!

Brad Osborne, Director, "I Am Alive: Surviving the Andes Plane Crash"

Posted by: Brad Osborne | January 25, 2011 10:20 PM    Report this comment

Brad, thanks for checking in with this. I e-mailed the network and they didn't respond. Superb job on the program. It was absolutely riveting.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 26, 2011 4:52 AM    Report this comment

Paul, Yes they're a big network and hard to reach sometimes. I very much appreciate your blog and your comments - most kind.

Posted by: Brad Osborne | January 26, 2011 10:58 AM    Report this comment

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