On October 13, 1972, a chartered plane carrying a Uruguayan rugby team crashed high in the remote Andes mountains. The astonishing 72-day saga of the survivors who defied death against all odds became known as the “Miracle in the Andes.”
A Fateful Flight
On October 12th, a Fairchild FH-227 chartered by the Uruguayan Air Force departed Montevideo for Santiago, Chile carrying 40 passengers and 5 crew members. The passengers were mainly young men, members of the Old Christians Club rugby team, along with 10 friends and family members who had tagged along.
The trip was supposed to take only a few hours. But bad weather forced the plane to stop overnight in Mendoza, Argentina. The next day, the plane took off just after 2 PM into clear skies. As the aircraft began its descent toward Santiago two hours later, it encountered turbulence and clouds.
Suddenly, the plane’s right wing struck a mountain at over 350 mph. The impact sheared off the aircraft’s tail and wings, sending wreckage flying across the snowy slopes. As the destroyed fuselage slid down the mountain, seats were ripped from their moorings, flinging passengers to their deaths.
When the wreckage finally came to rest at 11,800 feet, 12 passengers had been killed on impact or ejected into the mountains. Scattered across the remote snowy peaks, the plane’s remains would be nearly impossible for searchers to spot from the air.
Struggling to Survive
When the 33 battered and stunned survivors emerged from the ruined fuselage, they were met with a frigid, windswept scene. With night temperatures plunging below freezing, their situation was dire. The thin air at this altitude made breathing difficult and impaired mental functioning.
Among the dazed survivors were two medical students, Roberto Canessa and Gustavo Zerbino. They immediately began tending to the wounded as best they could with the meager first aid supplies on hand. Canessa had a broken arm, and Zerbino’s head was gashed open. That first awful night, five more badly injured passengers expired. Food supplies consisted of a few chocolate bars, jars of jam, dried fruit, peanuts, and some wine. The group quickly realized they needed to insulate the fuselage or freeze to death. Luggage, seat cushions, and wreckage were used to build walls and stuff gaps in the shredded tail. The survivors huddled together for warmth.
Vanishing Into Thin Air
Within hours of the crash on Friday the 13th, Chilean authorities had learned of the missing plane and launched an air search. But even when planes flew directly overhead, spotting the white wreckage in the snow proved impossible.
After eight days of combing an area twice the size of Wales, Chilean officials called off the rescue operation on October 20th, assuming there could be no survivors. When the survivors learned via a transistor radio that the search was over, despondency set in. Their only shred of hope now rested in their own determination to beat the odds and find a way out.
Resorting to Cannibalism
With meager food supplies running out and no sources of sustenance on the barren peaks, the survivors faced imminent starvation. Around October 29th, Canessa broached the dire idea of consuming their deceased comrades. Most recoiled in horror, but with no alternatives, reluctantly agreed to do what was necessary to survive.
Soon after, on October 30th, an avalanche killed eight more of the weakened survivors, leaving just 27 remaining. They crammed into the cramped, icy space within the wreckage where they would remain entombed for several more days. As the survivors ran out of rations, they resorted to cannibalism to ward off starvation.
Trekking for Help
In mid-December, Parrado and Canessa decided they had to leave the crash site and hike west over the mountains in search of help. Though severely weakened from lack of proper food and oxygen at this altitude, the pair managed to traverse the rugged, icy terrain for days before spotting signs of human habitat in a valley on December 20th.
Parrado hurriedly scribbled a note explaining their situation and threw it across a river to Chilean farmer Sergio Catalán, who then alerted authorities. On December 22nd, Chilean helicopters reached the crash site and rescued the remaining 14 emaciated survivors.
The 16 survivors had subsisted for 72 days in the most adverse conditions imaginable. Thanks to their perseverance, ingenuity, and remarkable will to live, their story became immortalized as the Miracle in the Andes.
- The aircraft was a Fairchild FH-227D twin-engine turboprop chartered from the Uruguayan Air Force
- The plane was flying the amateur rugby team to a match in Chile
- The crash site was at an elevation of 11,800 feet in a remote region of the Andes
- Survivors used parts of the plane wreckage as snowshoes
- They made sunglasses from seat cushions to prevent snow blindness
- Remaining food was strictly rationed to make it last as long as possible
- Roberto Canessa and Nando Parrado hiked for 10 days over mountains to find help
- In total, they trekked around 61 miles before spotting the Chilean rancher who went for help
- Fernando Parrado helped locate the crash site from the helicopter by recognizing peaks
- Chilean helicopters rescued 14 survivors on December 22, 1972, 72 days after the crash
- Where did the plane crash occur?
The plane crash occurred high in the remote Andes mountains along the Chile-Argentina border. The wreckage came to rest at an elevation of 11,800 feet.
- How many people were originally on board the flight?
There were 45 passengers and crew on board the chartered Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 when it crashed on October 13, 1972.
- How did the survivors stay warm?
The survivors used ingenious methods to insulate themselves from the freezing temperatures. They built walls around the fuselage using luggage and seat cushions. They made blankets by stitching together clothing. At night they squeezed together as tightly as possible in their makeshift shelters.
- What did the survivors eat after their food ran out?
With no other food sources available, the starving crash survivors resorted to cannibalism, eating the flesh of passengers killed in the crash in order to survive.
- How were the remaining survivors finally rescued?
Two months after the crash, Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa hiked for 10 days over the mountains in search of help. They came across Chilean farmer Sergio Catalán and alerted authorities, who sent helicopters to rescue the 14 survivors still at the crash site.