Its been 44 years today of the famous Andes Plane Crash which saw perhaps the most gruesome struggle for survival by its passengers at 13000 ft. in the present day Argentine municipality of Malargüe.
On 13 October 1972, a chartered Uruguayan Air Force twin turboprop Fairchild FH-227D was flying over the Andes carrying the Old Christians Club rugby union team from Montevideo, Uruguay, to play a match in Santiago, Chile. Due to bad weather conditions the normal route became untraversable and the pilots planned a detour which led to the crash because of the unknown terrain it was.
Of the 45 people on the aircraft, 12 died in the crash or shortly thereafter; another five had died by the next morning, and one more succumbed to injuries on the eighth day. The remaining 27 faced severe difficulties in surviving in the freezing mountains at such a high altitude. Many had suffered injuries from the crash, including broken legs from the aircraft’s seats piling together. The survivors lacked equipment such as cold-weather clothing and footwear suitable for the area, mountaineering goggles to prevent snow blindness.
The search parties from 3 different countries led the expedition to find the missing aircraft, but the white flying machine mixed perfectly with the surrounding snow which made it impossible to spot from the sky. After 8 days of trying, the search operations were called off with the belief that of getting no survivors. There was a small transistor radio which broke the news of the search being called off to the survivors on their 11th day on the mountain.
After exhausting the little food supply the survivors had they looked for anything to survive upon, ultimately realising that in this snow desert with no signs of life or vegetation, the only thing alongside them were aluminum, plastic, ice, and rock.
They did not give up hope- The group survived by collectively making a decision to eat flesh from the bodies of their dead comrades. This decision was not taken lightly, as most of the dead were classmates or close friends.
Eight of the initial survivors died on the afternoon of 29th October when an avalanche cascaded down on them as they slept in the fuselage. For three days they survived in an appallingly confined space since the aircraft was buried under several feet of snow. Nando Parrado, one of the survivors, was able to poke a hole in the roof of the fuselage with a metal pole, providing ventilation.
THE SLEEPING BAG AND THE HIKE
After some initial failure at trekking attempts, it was apparent to the survivors that the only way out was to climb over the mountains to the west. They also realized that unless they found a way to survive the freezing temperature of the nights, a trek was impossible. It was at this point that the idea for a sleeping bag was raised. In his book, Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home, Nando Parrado described how Carlitos Páez, who was taught to sew by his mother, took on the challenge of sewing a large folded quilt that would enclose 3 of the men during the night, by the items they had found on the crashed plane.
After the sleeping bag was completed and another survivor, Numa Turcatti, died from an illness, the hesitant lot was finally persuaded to set out, and the three men, Parrado, Canessa and Vizintín took to the mountain on 12th December.
On the third day of the trek, Parrado reached the top of the mountain before the other two. Stretched before him as far as the eye could see were more mountains. After spying a small “Y” in the distance, he gauged that a way out of the mountains must lie beyond, and refused to give up hope. When Parrado and Canessa realized that the hike was going to take more time than they had originally planned for, and that they were running out of food, they sent Vizintín back to the crash site.
After hiking for several more days, one day as Parrado was gathering wood to build a fire, Canessa noticed what looked like a man on a horse at the other side of the river, and yelled at the near-sighted Parrado to run down to the banks. At first it seemed that Canessa had been imagining the man on the horse, but eventually they saw three men on horseback.
They were seperated from the three horsemen by the Portillo River, which made it difficult for them to convey their message, but ultimately they did the required. The men pbviosuly knew about the plane crash, but could not believe at first, because they didn’t think that there would be any survivors still after so long. After realising the depth of the situation they hurriedly went to inform the officials and fetch more help.
In the morning of the day when the rescue started, those remaining at the crash site heard on their radio that Parrado and Canessa had been successful in finding help and that afternoon, 22 December 1972, two helicopters carrying search and rescue climbers arrived. The expedition (with Parrado on board) was not able to reach the crash site until the afternoon due to the difficulty of air travel through the Andes. The weather was very poor and the two helicopters were able to take only half of the survivors. They departed, leaving the rescue team and remaining survivors at the crash site to once again sleep in the fuselage, until a second expedition with helicopters could arrive the following morning. The second expedition arrived at daybreak on 23rd December and rescued the remaining survivors. All of the survivors were taken to hospitals in Santiago and treated for altitude sickness, dehydration, frostbite, broken bones, scurvy and malnutrition.