Andes 1972: The plane crash that led survivors to cannibalism

*Written by Ilda Toska

It was October 1972 when the Fairchild Hiller FH-227D crashed in the Andes. The passengers included members of the Old Christians Club rugby team, as well as friends and relatives of the athletes. Of the 45 people on board, only 16 survived the plane crash.

The wreckage of the aircraft was found after two months. The incident garnered international attention, especially after it was revealed that the survivors had resorted to cannibalism to survive. The shocking story of those who survived became the basis for many books and films, including the film “Alive”, starring Ethan Hawke.

The crash

On October 12, 1972, the Old Christians Club rugby team chartered a Uruguayan Air Force plane to fly the team from Montevideo, Uruguay to Santiago, Chile. Due to bad weather conditions, they were forced to spend the night in Mendoza, Argentina, before departing the next day. About an hour after takeoff, the pilot notified air traffic controllers that he was flying over the pass and a short time later called that he had reached Curico, Chile.

But the pilot had miscalculated. The plane was still in the Andes. Unaware of the mistake, the controllers cleared it to land. Shortly thereafter, the Chilean control tower would lose contact with the plane. The aircraft had hit a mountain causing it to lose first the right wing and then the left, before finally falling into a remote valley.

A search for the aircraft was immediately launched, but the wrong location given by the pilot and the snowy mountains made it impossible to find. After eight days, the search was called off, although efforts were later made by the families of the passengers.

The crash initially killed 12 people, leaving 33 survivors, many of whom were injured. The pilot died instantly while the co-pilot was seriously injured. As it later became known, he asked a passenger to find his gun and shoot him but he refused. Two medical students acted quickly and tried to treat as many as they could.

Cannibalism and survival

Survival conditions were difficult. Most of the Uruguayans had never seen snow before, and to cope with the cold temperatures, they huddled inside the plane, side by side.

The most difficult thing, however, was the lack of food. The survivors had at their disposal minimal amounts of food, mainly chocolates and wine. But they were over, all within a week.

Hunger led them to eat seat belts and desperately search for food in the snow. After a long discussion, they resorted to eating the corpses of their relatives and friends. Six more people died of hardship in the following weeks.

Roberto Canessa, one of the survivors, said in an interview: “We had to eat these corpses because the flesh had protein and fat and we needed it. However, deciding to accept it is only one step. The next thing is to actually do it. And that was very hard. Your mouth doesn’t want to open because you feel so miserable and sad about what you have to do. My main issue was that I was invading my friends’ privacy: violating their dignity by invading their bodies. But then I thought, if I died I would feel proud that my body could be used for others to survive.”

On October 29, an avalanche filled part of the aircraft with snow, causing another eight deaths. The survivors heard from a transistor that the search for them had been called off. Then, a young man suggested that they start the escape search themselves. On December 12, three passengers started the mission.

After hours of hiking they located some wreckage of the aircraft as well as some of their suitcases. They managed to save themselves from the cold by making improvised sleeping bags. After nine days of difficult journey, the hikers spotted three shepherds in a village. On December 22, 72 days after the crash, helicopters were sent to the crash site and airlifted the survivors to the hospital.

They were now saved!

*Ilda Tosca studies in New Media Studies


The article is in Greek

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