Alive: Uruguayan Flight 571

Uruguayan Flight 571, Summer 1972 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Just how far would you go to survive? Would you be willing to consume the flesh of those near and dear to you? These were just a few questions that rested on the minds of those survivors of Flight 571, an Old Christian Club rugby team from Montevideo, Uruguay. Unfortunately, fate had a different plan for those aboard the flight. The delays due to weather and rushed flight plans are just a few obstacles the passengers of the flight had to face. Their real challenge came after the initial crash as the survivors had faced an even greater challenge: surviving in the harsh conditions of the Andes Mountains with little to no supplies for seventy-two days.1

This history of the Old Christian Club was relatively short. It was founded in 1965 and gain international fame in 1972 with the disaster of Flight 571. In the early 1950s a group of alarmed Catholic parents invited the Irish Province of the Christian Brothers to start a school in Montevideo, Chile. This invitation was due to the atheistic tendencies of the teachers in state schools, along with a dissatisfaction with the teaching of English by Jesuits. Having accepted the invitation, five Irish lay brothers founded the Stella Maris College in a suburb of Carrasco, as a school for boys between the ages of nine and sixteen. The school quickly gained recognition within the town due to their traditional methods and old fashioned objectives, something one would not find within the Jesuits school. With the brothers’ aiming to build character in the boys, they turned to rugby, after parents had asked them to abandon the use of corporal punishment. The brothers used rugby because they saw soccer as being a sport for the “prima donna,” whereas rugby would teach the boys to suffer in silence along with building teamwork. Having been successful with the rugby program, and with graduates unwilling to give up on the sport, a group of alumni in 1965 decided to create the Old Christian Club. As the years passed, the team began to gain popularity, and rugby caught on in Uruguay. The team won the national championship in 1968 and again in 1970. As their popularity grew, so did their ambition, and in 1971 they decided to play in Chile. At the end of the season in 1972, many fans began to doubt the team as they lost the national championship to a team they considered inferior, but they still had hope for the game in Chile later that year.2

That same year, Flight 571 was charted to fly a Fairchild twin-engine turboprop that carried forty-five aboard, including the crew, family, and friends of the team. Originally it was supposed to be a nonstop flight from Montevideo, Uruguay to Santiago, Chile, but due to reports of bad weather in the mountains, the pilot, Julio Ferradas, decided to put the plane down in Mendoza, Argentina. The team initially had hopes of being back in the air within a few hours of landing, but the weather reports were not encouraging, so the team decided to make the most of their time. Some spent their time in the town sight-seeing, others relaxed in cafes, and some enjoyed watching an auto race at a track outside of town. The next day was one that left the team and its passengers anxious to leave, but no word was given, so some decided to see the town some more, until they received word to meet at the airport at 1:00 p.m. While the plane’s passengers met at the airport, they were surprised to see that the pilot and his copilot had yet to decide whether or not to fly that day. While the team reacted with frustration and anger, none of them had realized that weather reports that morning warned of some turbulence along the flight path. After pilot Julio Ferradas spoke with a pilot from a cargo plane that had recently come in, he was confident enough to make the flight out that day, but with all the delays, the plane would not take off until well pass two o’clock. This time of day was dangerous and risky for those flying over the mountains, as the warm Argentine air met the frigid air above the snow line, creating instability within the atmosphere. But even with the risk at hand, the team had to depart that day as the aircraft had been leased from the Uruguayan air force, and due to Argentinian laws no foreign aircraft could stay on Argentine soil for longer than twenty-four hours. The team, being a bunch of  “fearless” young men, decided to tease and question the competence of the pilots, saying things such as “We hired you to take us to Chile” and “…that’s what we want you to do!” After some more deliberation among the pilots, and the reaction from the team, they decided to depart eighteen minutes after two o’clock.3

As they climbed to 18,000 feet, the plane banked into a left turn and soon they were flying south. The Argentine Andes were rising and the passengers gazed through the windows admiring the beauty that surrounded them. While the flight continued, the team continued to enjoy themselves, whether it was passing the rugby ball around the cabin, playing cards with the crew, or just enjoying the views outside the window.4  Mid-way through the flight a steward made an announcement for the passengers to fasten their seat-belts, as they were about to hit some turbulence. All seemed fine. The plane shook a bit from the turbulence and some of the team cheered as if they were on an amusement park ride, while others tried to calm the nerves of the other passengers. Just then the plane began to descend and bounce. While the pilots tried to stabilize the plane, passengers began to notice just how close the mountains were beginning to appear in the windows. Then they felt it, the roar of the engine as the plane desperately tried to rise above the mountains. It rose a little, but then came a crash that shook the entire plane as the right wing finally struck the mountain. A hole was ripped into the fuselage, then the left wing broke off, and at that moment, cries for help and screams of terror filled the plane as it hurtled towards the mountain. Some were sucked out the back of the plane, while others cried out to Jesus or said a Hail Mary, trying to do whatever they could to stay alive. But somehow the plane landed on its belly and slid down the mountain until finally reaching a stop.5 In a state of shock, some could not get a hold of themselves, others like team captain Marcelo Perez began to take action trying to find and aid those still stuck in the wreckage with the help of two medical students Canessa and Zerbino. They did all they could, but it was not enough. Twelve died in either the initial crash or shortly after due to the severity of their injuries. Some still alive and in constant pain were comforted by the remaining survivors, trying to do whatever they could to provide them with a sense of safety, but not all was good for them.6 With a lack of proper supplies for the conditions they were in, the survivors had to make with what was left of the crash. Next to that, search efforts were suspended as the plane’s white color blended with the snow, making it difficult for the rescue team to spot them. As time went on and survival seemed to slip from their hands, they began to do all they could to survive. Their food supply was nearly gone after trying to ration out all that was left. Soon enough though this supply was gone, so they had to resort to eating parts of the plane. Then came the most difficult part for many of them. With many of them being Catholic, some tried to justify the actions about to take place with passages from the Bible. They then began to cut and consume the meat from the dead passengers.7

Some of the Survivors of Flight 571 | Courtesy of Reddit

This decision to eat the flesh of their loved ones had to come from their deep desire to survive, but they also seemed to get passed the stigma of consuming human flesh. One of the members tried to justify this act, stating that this act of cannibalism was similar to the ritual of Holy Communion.8 After getting passed this bump in their road to survival, they were hit with another obstacles. On the afternoon of October 29, an avalanche hit the remaining survivors as they slept, killing an additional eight of the survivors and leaving the others stranded for three days buried in the snow. Before this point, the remaining survivors had talked about trekking over the mountain in order to find help, but now it seemed that that was the only option left for them. Three of the men, Parrado, Canessa, and Vizintin, began to prepare for this long trek by making sleeping bags out of some of the materials left at the crash site, along with packing up enough meat into socks in order to sustain them on their journey. Finally, on December 12, the three men began their journey to find help.9

After deciding what path to take up the slope of the mountain, the three men began their hike, but due to their lack of experience, they actually chose the most dangerous path up the mountain. The beginning of their trek was promising, as the snow was leveled with the slope and their boots were able to withstand the icy slopes. Parrado ended up taking the lead of the three men, but had to be reminded constantly to slow down as he would often get too far ahead of the other men. By the third day, Parrado had reached the top of the mountain that split the two countries of Chile and Argentina before the other two, and was able to see the green valleys of Chile below, but still had to hike tens of kilometers down. After more days of hiking the men were finally able to reach the green valley and from there they followed the San José River that connected to the Portillo and Azufre at Maitenes Rivers. But during this hike down, Vizintin was sent back to the fuselage. The two men continued down this path until they reached the end of the snow line and saw the presence of humans. By the ninth day, the two men were exhausted and Canessa was unable to continue, so the men decided to set up camp for the night, but at that same moment, Canessa saw what appeared to be a man across the river on a horse. The two men tried to make contact, but the roar of the river made it difficult for them; but the three men heard one of the horsemen shout “tomorrow” and from there they knew that they were finally saved.10 The next day Sergio Catalán, the horseman that originally spotted them, came back to the men, gave them loaves of bread, and took a note from them asking about their situation. Understanding the severity of the men, Catalán road for many hours to seek help and along the way asked a fellow horseback rider to bring the two men to Los Maitenes, a summer ranch. The following day, rescue efforts were sent out with Parrado to lead the pilots to the crash site. The rescue efforts took two days as poor weather conditions again caused them problems. Seven of the survivors were taken the first day with the remaining seven taken the next. The survivors were taken to the hospital where they were treated for altitude sickness, frostbite, scurvy, malnutrition, dehydration, and broken bones. The news of this event leaked quickly and many reporters tried to get an interview with the survivors.11

Fernando Parrado and Robert Canessa with Sergio Catalán | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The aftermath of the event was rough on everyone. Many of the survivors had initially claimed they survived on cheese, wanting to share the horrific details with family, but due to leaked images to the public, the survivors had to come forth and describe their need to eat the dead. A press conference was held on December 28 at Stella Maris College in Montevideo, where the survivors recounted the events that took place the past seventy-two days. Following that, the Chilean rescuers and a priest returned to the crash site to bury the dead, where they also decided to set up a memorial before igniting the remains of the fuselage.12

Crash Memorial | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
  1. I Am Alive: Surviving the Andes Plane Crash, Directed by Brad Osborne, History Broadcasting, October 20, 2010.
  2. Read Paul, Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors ( England, J.B. Lippincott, 1974), 18-23.
  3. Parrado Nando and Rause Vince, Miracle in the Andes (United States, Crown, 2006), 7-9.
  4. Parrado Nando and Rause Vince, Miracle in the Andes (United States, Crown, 2006), 10-12.
  5. Parrado Nando and Rause Vince, Miracle in the Andes (United States, Crown, 2006), 51-53.
  6. Parrado Nando and Rause Vince, Miracle in the Andes (United States, Crown, 2006), 55-56.
  7. Matthew J. Rossano, Mortal Rituals: What the Story of the Andes Survivors Tells Us About Human Evolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 37-39.
  8. Parrado Nando and Rause Vince, Miracle in the Andes (United States, Crown, 2006), 95-97.
  9. Parrado Nando and Rause Vince, Miracle in the Andes (United States, Crown, 2006), 181-182.
  10. Parrado Nando and Rause Vince, Miracle in the Andes (United States, Crown, 2006), 220-221.
  11. Parrado Nando and Rause Vince, Miracle in the Andes (United States, Crown, 2006), 243.
  12. Parrado Nando and Rause Vince, Miracle in the Andes (United States, Crown, 2006), 258, 264-265.
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25 Comments

  • I had heard about this story before and I had always wanted to know exactly what happened. I loved the detail that was provided in this article, and the story was certainly very impressive. I can’t imagine how much suffering they must have undergone, and although I am not completely comfortable with the idea of justifying cannibalism with the Eucharist, I do agree that that was their only means of surviving. I admire the men who took the lead to search for help; without them, no one would have been saved.

  • It is painful to think about those guys who had no choice but to eat the flesh of their companions. I can’t imagine how hard their decision for to do so for them considering their religion. Although they did what against their principles, I would like to give high praise to them for their courage.

  • I had never heard of this plane crash, but the way the author described it read to me like a movie. I felt like I could see each event as it was occurring and it was terrifying. It’s quite sad that so many died in this crash, and the fact they were all good friends must have made the events even harder. I don’t know if I would be able to eat human flesh, thinking about it outside of the situation makes my stomach turn. I guess if I really needed to my mindset would be different, but let’s pray I never need to find out.

  • I’ve always been interested in human survival. Whether it be in natural disasters, things to do with crime, or something just as tragic as this. Reading what these people would do to survive, is absolutely mind blowing. Trying to imagine myself in the same situation, I don’t know what would happen. Knowing that it was an entire 72 days they were trapped makes my survival even less likely in the situation.

  • I wonder how they were able to justify eating their friends, family, and teammates despite the faith they held. I figure it was only a matter of time before they became hungry enough to agree to the terms however it still must have felt very sad and possibly even angering to have been in the positions to commit such an unpleasant act. I have never heard of this event before but the article provided a nice description of the events that took place.

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