By Meritxell Freixas
San Fernando, Chile, Oct 12 (EFE).- Fifty years after the Andes flight disaster, the first nurse who treated the 16 survivors, one of the co-pilots who rescued 14 members of the group and the journalist who conducted an exclusive interview with the other two spoke to Efe about the complex and dangerous rescue mission.
That two-day operation began on Dec. 22, 1972, more than two months after Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, a chartered flight traveling from Montevideo to Santiago with 45 crew and passengers, including 19 members of an Uruguayan rugby union team, crashed in the Andes mountains on Oct. 13 due to pilot error.
The mission got under way amid heavy cloud cover that would have made any air rescue unthinkable under normal circumstances.
But it proceeded due to the urgency of retrieving the group, who had survived for 72 days on a glacier at an elevation of 3,570 meters (11,710 feet) in the remote Andes of far western Argentina, just east of the border with Chile.
After waiting more than an hour for the fog to dissipate, the search-and-rescue teams headed to Los Maitenes ranch to meet with Roberto Canessa and Fernando “Nando” Parrado, two of the survivors who had set off on a days-long hike from the site of the wreck and had been found by a Chilean arriero (muleteer).
“We didn’t believe they were the Urguayans because we’d carried out more than 100 missions searching for them,” Ramon Canales, a co-pilot of one of the helicopters that took part in the mission, told Efe in the central Chilean city of San Fernando.
“If it were true that they were the Uruguayans, that would be international news. What better story to cover than that one for someone who’s starting out?” said Alipio Vera, a journalist who was just 27 years old at the time and was the first to interview Canessa and Parrado at the ranch.
Two helicopters lifted off from Los Maitenes in search of the fuselage of the crashed plane. Parrado was on board one of the choppers and was tasked with guiding the rescuers, but he became disoriented when the helicopter had to take a different approach to the peak.
Parrado recalled though that an avalanche that had killed several members of the group had left a coffee-colored patch high up on the mountain, the co-pilot said, recalling the elation they experienced when they spotted that brown-colored slab of rock and shortly afterward the fuselage and the 14 remaining survivors.
Canales took a photo of the men – their arms raised in the air and shouting into the sky – that became the iconic image of an ordeal and miraculous survival that drew international headlines.
“It gave me an inner joy that’s difficult to describe,” Jose Bravo, the first nurse to treat the survivors, told Efe of the moment the rescue team came upon the crashed plane.
Six people were evacuated the first day, while the other eight were taken to safety a day later. Bravo remained on the glacier with the second group.
“Night fell and we all went inside the plane to tell jokes and sing … They asked us what they could eat in Chile at that time, what fruit there was. The guys were crying. They were happy,” the nurse recalled during an interview in San Fernando.
The following morning, the mission was completed on a sunny, windless day. “When we climbed into the helicopter, we hugged one another, and seeing them cry we also cried,” Bravo said. EFE