Disasters & Accidents

Survivor of 1972 Andes flight disaster: Our deceased friends gave us life

By Concepcion M. Moreno

Buenos Aires, Oct 13 (EFE).- One of the survivors of the 1972 Andes flight disaster recalls with serenity 50 years later having to resort to cannibalism to stay alive, saying the group’s deceased friends were all that kept them from perishing in a frigid, extremely high-elevation no-man’s land.

“We didn’t do anything to repent for carrying our friends in our bodies and our souls, which is the honor I would have felt if I’d died and they’d used me to live,” 69-year-old Roberto Canessa said from Uruguay in an interview via video conference with foreign correspondents in Argentina, including Efe.

That air disaster occurred on Oct. 13, 1972, when a chartered flight from Montevideo to Santiago carrying 45 passengers, including a Uruguayan rugby team and their families, supporters and friends, went down in the Andes mountains due to pilot error.

Twelve of the passengers died in the crash, while several others succumbed soon afterward to serious injuries and more than a dozen more perished in the weeks that followed as a result of exposure, starvation and an avalanche.

But 16 men endured 72 days of extreme hardship by feeding on the only food source available on a glacier located at an elevation of 3,570 meters (11,710 feet), where Canessa says there are “no flies … nothing” except ice and snow.

The pediatric surgeon said he feels privileged to be alive and compared himself and his fellow survivors to experimental organ transplant recipients.

“Because there were no heart, kidney nor liver transplants, nothing of the sort” at the time, he recalled, and feeding on the corpses of the other passengers gave them a chance to stay alive.

“I feel like they transplanted life to us,” he calmly stated.

In Pablo Vierci’s 2007 book “La sociedad de la nieve” (The Snow Society: The Definitive Account of the World’s Greatest Survival Story), which inspired Spanish director J.A. Bayona to make a new drama film – due out in 2023 – on the so-called “Miracle of the Andes,” Canessa compares their ordeal to an evil, mad scientist experimenting on humans.

In that respect, he says that a half-century later that “human experiment has less and less hold over him every time” because “feelings gradually heal and the hardships don’t have the same potency they had at that moment.”

In describing their experiences in interviews and motivational talks all over the world, Canessa says the solidarity of that “snow society” stands out amid the pain, exhaustion and despair.

Canessa and Fernando “Nando” Parrado were the two men who set off from the crash site on Dec. 12, 1972, scaled the summit of a nearby 4,650-meter-high (15,260-foot-high) peak, spotted a valley and then embarked on a long westward trek in hopes of finding signs of human presence.

After hiking for 10 days into Chile, they came upon a muleteer named Sergio Catalan, who was the first to tell the world that more than a dozen people survived the ill-fated Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571.

Canessa recalled that he had decided to join Parrado and Antonio Vizintin (who later returned to the group to help preserve food) in the climb to the summit, adding that he was emboldened by the words of an initial survivor of the crash, Arturo Nogueira, who lamented being unable to walk and feeling like “a parasite.”

Nogueira, whose legs had been broken in several places, died on Nov. 15, 1972.

During the interview, Canessa also spoke about the perspective on life the ordeal has given him.

“Sometimes we pursue material things that don’t bring us happiness,” he said. “Don’t wait for the plane to crash to realize how good you had it.”

The survivors (now totaling 15 after Javier Methol died of cancer in 2016) will gather once again for a reunion on Dec. 22 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their rescue and remember friends and loved ones who also were passengers on the flight and made their miraculous story possible. EFE


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