Survival in the Andes 

Monday, November 27, 2006

As a big fan of the novel Alive by Piers Paul Read, about the Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes, I immediately snapped up survivor Nando Parrado's new book Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home.

For those of you who haven't read the book or seen the 1993 movie or simply didn't read the headlines in 1972, Nando's skull was smashed when the small plane crashed, waking up three days later to find his mother dead and his sister suffering from internal injuries. When the search for the team was called off after eight days, the passengers realized they would have to walk out of the Andes. From the moment he regained consciousness, Nando insisted on leaving the wreckage and finding help.

This new book, written with Vince Rause, offers more of the internal dialogues that led Nando to risk his life. When Nando reaches the summit of the mountain after four days of climbing, he expects, misled by the dying pilot, to see the green fields of Chile at the edge of the mountains. Instead he realizes that he is trapped in the middle of the cordillera (page 200):
In that moment all my dreams, assumptions, and expectations of life evaporated into the thin Andean air. I had always thought that life was the actual thing, the natural thing, and that death was simply the end of living. Now, in this lifeless place, I saw with a terrible clarity that death was the constant, death was the base, and life was only a short, fragile dream. I was dead already. I had been born dead, and what I thought was my life was just a game death let me play as it waited to take me.
I especially enjoyed his sensitivity in addressing the depictions of some of the survivors, who came across less heroically in the first book. But most fascinating was to see what happened to the survivors after their rescue. All the men, except one, went on to have children. Out of the fifteen men who had children, all but two had three or more children. I wonder if Uruguayan women simply have more children or if the survivors decided to have more children as a reaction to their experience.

Having last read Alive some ten years ago, I picked it off my bookshelf to reread it for the sixth time. I also looked the story up online and found much that wasn't in either book. Most facts, unless otherwise linked, come from the survivors' website or from a long article on the subject. I am writing for here for myself and for others who have read both books, so I will not explain all the details unless requested. As we are here talking about a true event, there's no need for a spoiler wanring.
  • Two other deaths at time of crash were the team physician, Dr. Nicola and his wife, Esther.

  • Some, including Coche Inciarte, and the Methols refused to eat human flesh, so they were given the rest of the dwindling chocolate; it wasn't long before this ran out and these few who had refused reluctantly ate as well.

  • There were ten bodies in the cemetery, three of whom were agreed not to be used unless there was no other option (Parrado's mother and sister and Methol's nephew) . The meat was rationed as the chocolate had been.

  • After the avalanche, mechanic Roque was still alive. However, the other survivors failed to resucitate him.

  • Various members among the survivors went on a total of about ten expeditions, most were in the quest to find the missing tail. This was for two reasons, one was they thought there was a possibility that their friends who fell out over the mountain could be living in the wreckage, and two, they wanted to get to the batteries.

  • Canessa, Parrado and Vizintín returned to the fuselage, having found the tail on November 17, and brought the radio and Roy Harley to the Fairchild's tail to hook it up on the 24th, but it did not work, it turned out that the transmitter required 115 volts AC, normally supplied by an inverter, the batteries were 24 volts DC.

  • Five days (October 17) after they crashed, Canessa, Páez, Fito Strauch and Turcatti went to find the tail, climbing up the mountain to the southeast. They didn't find anything.

  • On October 24, Maspons, Turcatti and Zerbino set out again to the southeast in search of the tail. They found the wreckage of the wings, engines, and other pieces of the Fairchild, along with 6 bodies. They could not see the tail.

  • Bobby François and Inciarte attempt a trial expedition. They climbed 300 feet up the mountain to the southeast and returned.

  • Algorta and Turcatti on a trial expedition again use the southeast route, reaching the wing before they returned.

  • On November 5, Harley, Páez and Vizintín attempt a trial expedition, this time down the valley to the east. They find pieces of the tail and the galley.

  • It was December 11 that Canessa, Parrado and Vizintín climb the mountains to the west into Chile. Canessa and Parrado send back Vizintín on the 15th, who uses his seat cushion snowshoes as a sled to slide down the mountain, returning to the Fairchild in two hours. (It took three days to climb that far.)

  • While the expeditionaries were away, on the 13th, Fito Strauch and Zerbino set off up the mountain to find bodies for food. They found only one body, which turned out to be Daniel Shaw, Fito's cousin. They bring down Daniel's body but agreed not to use it.

  • On December 14, Algorta and Páez leave to find another body up the mountain. They find one, but, as it was late in the day, they returned to the plane and went back up the next day with Fito and took some meat back to the plane. They returned to this body - which they had covered with snow to prevent the sun from rotting it - one last time the morning after and took what was left of the meat down to the plane.

  • On December 17, the survivors who stayed in the plane hear on the radio that the cross found by the C-47 was made by a group of Argentinean meteorologists.

  • Also on the 17th, Parrado and Canessa find moss and reeds - the first vegetation they had seen since the crash. Canessa eats some herbs.

  • On December 18, Canessa loses his sunglasses; he retraces his path to find them (otherwise he would have gone blind). This night is the most restful night since they crashed.

  • On the morning of December 22, Fernandez and Eduardo listened to a Montevideo radio news station, when they heard that Nando and Canessa had been found. Thinking it was a mistake, they tuned it to different stations and heard the same. The boys tried to tidy up the plane and themselves; the thought of burying the remains of their friends crossed their minds, but the surface of the snow was ice hard. They began to put on the best and cleanest clothes they could find, combed their hair, brushed their teeth, and tried to wash up.

  • The survivors left on the mountain after the first helicopters came drank tea and lemon juice that their rescuers gave them. The Andinists set up a tent outside the plane; they were invited to sleep in the hulk of the Fairchild, but the smell was too strong. Rescuer Diaz, however, did join them. The next morning, December 23, they were treated to a good breakfast and then prepared for the next helicopters. Around 10:00 am, three helicopters appeared above the mountains. The first lowered and took three survivors. It lifted and a second came down to take three more survivors; the third came down and took the last two, including Zerbino and his suitcase filled with the personal property of those who had died on the mountain. The first helicopter returned to pick up the four Andinists.

  • On December 26, El Mercurio, a Santiago newspaper, publishes a photograph in the front page mentioning the cannibalism. The survivors hold a press conference in Montevideo.

  • While there were fourteen intact bodies, only scant, unidentifiable pieces remained of the other fifteen.

  • On January 18, 1973, a ten-man team from the Andean Rescue Corps, along with representatives of the SAR and Uruguayan Air Force, and a catholic priest went to the crash site in the mountains by helicopter. Over two days, the bodies and remains from around the fuselage and up the mountain were gathered, placed in plastic body bags, and moved to a shallow grave almost half a mile from the spot where the fuselage came to rest. The grave was covered over with rocks and an iron cross was erected. The wreckage of the fuselage was set afire, fueled by gasoline that had been doused throughout it. The team was air lifted from the site on January 20.

  • On March 21, the site was visited by two fathers who had lost their sons on the mountain - Ricardo Echavarren and Gustavo Nicolich. The two men, accompanied by two climbing guides and two reporters, had climbed up to the burned-out wreck from the eastern side of the mountains, passing by the tail section in the process. Echavarren had come with an agenda, to retrieve the body of his son. Ricardo Echavarren had been told by survivors of his son's desire to be buried in Uruguay and not abandoned in the Andes and he was going to see that his son's dying wish was granted. The men continued on to the mass grave and carefully removed the rocks that covered it. The bag containing Rafael's body was quickly found and after rebuilding the grave the men started back out of the mountains; Nicolich did not attempt to find his son. As the party reached the foothills they were met by Argentine police officers and the fathers were arrested for grave robbing. Rafael's body was confiscated and transferred to a holding niche at San Rafael Cemetery. Through the intervention of reporters and the Mayor of San Rafael, the charges against Nicolich and Echavarren were dropped, but the body remained in San Rafael until Echavarren obtained legal orders allowing him to export his son back to Uruguay.

  • Alfredo Delgado still limps on the leg that he broke in the crash.

  • Roberto (Bobby) François is rather unwilling to discuss his time on the mountain.

  • Roy Harley takes care of all the business that involves the sixteen survivors.

  • In 1994, Jose Inciarte won a share of a $2.5 Million New Years Lottery, which he split up with eleven family members who helped to buy the lottery tickets.

  • In October 2002, thirty years after their scheduled match in the Copa Amistad tournament, the Old Christians beat the Old Boys 28-11 in the Chilean capital, Santiago. It was a symbolic match between the 14 surviving Old Christian members (two survivors were not part of the team) and the Chilean squad they had been scheduled to face 30 years ago.

  • The National Geographic April 2006 cover feature was "Alive! Then & Now." Contributing Editor James Vlahos, Boulder-based guide Ricardo Peña and guide Mario Perez retraced for the first time the route used by Roberto Canessa, Nando Parrado, and Antonio Vizintín, starting their trek on the same day of the year and camping in the same spots. See the photos here and the map here.

  • From Alive's IMDB forums: The pretty-eyed actor who played Pancho Delgado in the film is the same one the third smokestack collapsed on top of in Titanic. That guy needs a better travel agent!


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