Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, also known as Miracle Flight 571, was a chartered flight originating in Montevideo, Uruguay, bound for Santiago, Chile, that crashed high in the Andes mountains on 13 October 1972. The accident became known as the Andes flight disaster (Tragedia de los Andes) and the Miracle of the Andes (Milagro de los Andes).
While crossing the Andes during poor weather, the inexperienced co-pilot of the Fairchild FH-227D mistakenly believed they had reached Curicó, despite instrument readings that indicated otherwise. The aircraft began descending too early to reach Pudahuel Airport and struck a mountain, shearing off both wings and the tail section. The remaining portion of the fuselage slid down the mountain about 725 metres (2,379 ft) before striking ice and snow on a glacier. The flight was carrying 45 passengers and crew, including 19 members of the Old Christians Club rugby union team, along with their families, supporters, and friends.
The flight carrying 19 members of a rugby team, family, supporters, and friends originated in Montevideo, Uruguay and was headed for Santiago, Chile. While crossing the Andes, the inexperienced co-pilot who was in command mistakenly believed they had reached Curicó, Chile, despite instrument readings indicating differently. He turned north and began to descend towards what he thought was Pudahuel Airport. Instead, the aircraft struck the mountain, shearing off both wings and the rear of the fuselage. The forward part of the fuselage careened down a steep slope like a toboggan and came to rest on a glacier. Three crew members and more than a quarter of the passengers died in the crash, and several others quickly succumbed to cold and injuries.
On the tenth day after the crash, the survivors learned from a transistor radio that the search had been called off. Faced with starvation and death, those still alive agreed that should they die, the others may consume their bodies so they might live. With no choice, the survivors ate the bodies of their dead friends.
Roberto Canessa was a second-year medical student when the plane he had chartered with his rugby team mates crashed into the mountains. “Eating human flesh, you feel like you’re the most miserable person on the earth,” he said. “But in my mind, there was the idea that my friend was giving me a chance of survival that he didn’t have.”
Canessa broken his silence to tell his own story in a memoir, I Had To Survive. The specter of resorting to cannibalism haunts him still. “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,” he recalled. “After just a few days we were feeling the sensation of our own bodies consuming themselves just to remain alive.”
“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 agonized. 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.”
Roberto said he managed to reconcile himself when he remembered the words he had said himself in the aftermath of the crash: that if he died, the rest could use his body to survive. “For me, it was an honor to say that if my heart stopped beating, my arms and legs and muscles could still be part of our communal mission to get off the mountain. I wanted to know I’d still be playing my part,” he explained.
Seventeen days after the crash, 27 remained alive when an avalanche filled the rear of broken fuselage they used as shelter, killing eight more survivors. The survivors had little food and no source of heat in the harsh conditions. They decided that a few of the strongest people would hike out to seek rescue. Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa, lacking mountaineering gear of any kind, climbed from the glacier at 3,570 metres (11,710 ft) to the 4,670 metres (15,320 ft) peak blocking their way west. Over 10 days they trekked about 24 kilometres (15 mi) seeking help. The first person they saw was Chilean arriero Sergio Catalán, who gave them food and then rode for ten hours to alert authorities. The story of the passengers’ survival after 72 days drew international attention. The last 16 survivors were rescued on 23 December 1972, more than two months after the crash.
The survivors were concerned about what the public and family members of the dead might think about their acts of eating the dead. There was an initial public backlash, but after they explained the pact the survivors made to sacrifice their flesh if they died to help the others survive, the outcry diminished and the families were more understanding. The incident was later known as the Andes flight disaster and, in the Hispanic world, as El Milagro de los Andes (The Miracle of the Andes).
“And now, as a doctor, I cannot help associating that event — using a dead body to continue living — with something that would be realized the world over in the coming decades: organ and tissue transplants,” Roberto said. “We were the ones to break the taboo. But the world would break it with us in the years to come, as what was once thought bizarre became a new way to honor the dead.”
“Gradually, each of us came to our own decision in our own time. And once we had done so, it was irreversible. It was our final goodbye to innocence.
“We were never the same again.”