Plane Crashes in Andes, Survivors Battle Nature

Plane Crashes in Andes, Survivors Battle Nature

On 13 October 1972, a Fairchild FH-277 flying from Montevideo, Uruguay to Santiago, Chile crashed high in the Andean mountains, instantly killing 12 of the 50 passengers and crew aboard. Of the remaining survivors, only 16 people would ultimately live to tell the tale in what will be remembered as one of the greatest survival stories in history, dubbed “El Milagro de los Andes”–or the Miracle of the Andes.

Most of the passengers on board Flight 571 were rugby players on their way to a match in Chile. As chronicled in an array of popular books, films, and television programs, the survivors were put to the test and forced to survive in the cruelest conditions imaginable. They had limited resources, lacking food, shelter, medical supplies and cold-weather clothing in the harshest of alpine environments. They had little more than a few chocolate bars and bottles of wine available and the terrain was devoid of vegetation. Their chance of survival was considered so unlikely that the search missions were called off after little longer than a week.

Despite the odds, 16 people would survive in the end. Their ordeal included incredible ingenuity and gruesome necessity. In later interviews the survivors have spoken of a social order that began to form in which survival dictated all. With no sustenance remaining and starvation nearing, they were forced into cannibalism, having to eat the flesh of their friends and the crew. It was unthinkable, and to this day, the survivors display intense distress over the undertaking.

A little over two weeks after the crash, an avalanche killed eight more of the remaining survivors. Outlook for survival looked grimmer than ever, and the strongest men embarked on a mission to seek help. Having waited for warmer weather, they set out carrying a bag with frozen human flesh and wearing the warmest clothes available. They walked for almost two weeks through the mountains and across the frozen terrain until they found a Chilean horseman who went to report the men. He managed to reach a customs official, who in turn called for helicopters.

On 22-23 December, 72 days after the crash, helicopters were able to reach the site, and the 16 survivors were finally evacuated and taken for medical care. Their story would become a media sensation. Today, the survivors live close by to one another in Montevideo, and have formed the Fundación Viven (Alive Foundation) dedicated to helping communities struggling to survive.

Credit: Getty 80751519
Caption: Months after the crash, on 1 December 1972, survivors of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 wave to their rescuers.