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Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571: The 1972 Plane Crash That Turned Survivors Into Cannibals

1970s | December 23, 2019

Where that fateful flight crash landed in the Andes. (vintag.es)

Life sometimes forces extreme solutions to difficult situations. The crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 on October 13, 1972 forced the grizzliest of answers to one of the most impossible questions: Would you eat human flesh to survive? That was the very real, very heart-clenching and gut-busting decision that the surviving members of the 1972 Uruguayan amateur rugby team faced when their plane crash-landed in one of the harshest environments on Earth. Their tale inspired a book, a movie, and undoubtedly, years of nightmares.

Survivors attempting to keep their spirits high. (People)

The Crash

Can you imagine going from playfully tossing around a rugby ball and joking with your friends to hearing your pilot frantically order you to fasten your seatbelt? Those instructions might freeze your heart even before you look out the window and realize the plane is far, far too close to the mountains. That was the experience of the passengers of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 right before their plane smashed into one of the highest mountain ranges in the world. One surviving member of the team, Roberto Canessa, describes the resulting scene in his book

I was thrown forward with tremendous force and received a powerful blow to my head. I thought "You’re dead." I grabbed my seat and recited a Hail Mary. Someone cried out "Please God, help me, help me!" It was the worst nightmare you can imagine. Another boy was screaming "I'm blind!" When he moved his head, I could see his brain---and a piece of metal sticking out of his stomach.

The last photo of many of the Uruguayan amateur rugby team. (Pinterest)

Pilot Error

The grisly crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 came down to a simple mistake. The pilot, unable to see through the clouds, incorrectly estimated their position near the Pass of Planchón, which he intended to navigate because the aging aircraft couldn't reach the altitude required to climb over the Andes. When the pilot turned toward what he thought was the pass, he found himself staring straight into the side of the Andes. When he tried to pull the plane up, it stalled and crashed into the mountain range. 

Hell in the Andes. (tribune.com.pk)

Surviving Hell

Most people would not survive the trials and tribulations faced by the passengers of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571. They were incredibly resourceful and showed amazing cooperation under the most trying circumstances possible. They also got one stroke of luck: Roberto Canessa just so happened to be a medical student. 

Smart thinking and teamwork kept these men alive. (India Times)

Smart Thinking

Although none of them were exactly Bear Grylls, the surviving members of the team made ingenious decisions that were vital to keeping them alive. They skinned the seats of the plane for blankets, made sunglasses out of the windscreen of the cockpit, fashioned shoes out of the bottoms of the plane's seats, and erected hammocks for the injured. At night, they urinated into their rugby balls because, according to Canessa:

If you went outside, your pee would freeze. [laughs] You get very smart when you are dying.

The calm before the storm. (news.com.au)

From Bad To Worse

As if their plane crashing into the Andes wasn't enough, the team was forced to survive another terror: an avalanche. Eight more members of the team died when thousands of tons of snow descended upon them in the blink of an eye. Canessa remembers the feeling of being buried alive as his friends, "frantically [digging] handfuls of snow away from my mouth."

The pilots error contributed to the failed rescue attempt. (Maps of World)

A Grim Decision

Despite all their brilliant survival techniques, as the days went by and nobody came to their rescue, the remaining members of the team faced a horrifying decision: Eat the bodies of their friends, or die. Many people insist they couldn't stomach cannibalism, but many people have never been confronted with such a life-or-death question. Incidentally, the rugby team didn't technically commit cannibalism but anthropophagy. The difference is that cannibals kill humans for their meat while the rugby team only ate their friends who were already dead.

The resident doctor of the crash didn't care much about the distinction, at the time or now.

We had to eat these dead bodies, and that was it. The flesh had protein and fat, which we needed, like cow meat. I was also used to medical procedures, so it was easier for me to make the first cut. The decision to accept it intellectually is only one step, though. The next step is to actually do it. And that was very tough. Your mouth doesn't want to open because you feel so miserable and sad about what you have to do.

Canessa, the medical student who saved the lives of his compatriots. (Express)

Lost Hope

Many members of the team were badly injured, either during the crash or in the ensuing avalanche. Walking to safety was out of the question for most of them. When they heard the news that their rescue search had been called off, however, they knew that doing nothing would be a death sentence. Canessa and two other team members decided to search for help, packing the meat from their friends' bodies into rugby socks before setting off down the mountain.

Canessa today. (Global News)

Resolution

Canessa, along with Nando Parrado, walked together for several days before finding help. After 72 days of hell, the 16 survivors were rescued thanks to teamwork, persistence, and smart thinking. However, Canessa thinks his survival was due more to spiritual strength than intellectual.

Who survived? It wasn't the smartest, most intelligent ones. The ones who survived were those who most felt the joy of living. That gave them a reason to survive.

The story of the Andes plane crash of October 13, 1972 was made into the major motion picture Alive. (Sky Sports)

Great Advice From A Survivor

In his book, Canessa shares advice that's relevant to everyone, stuck on a mountain or not:

Don't wait for your plane to crash to realize how lucky you are. Don't be seduced by your own ego and think you're better than other people, because that's the beginning of being unsuccessful. Every day, try to do something positive, so that when you put your head on the pillow, you can ask yourself if you are a good person or not. The next day, try to do better. Every day, when I look at myself in the mirror, I thank God the same old jerk is still staring back at me.

Tags: cannibalism | crash | mountains | picasso self portraits | plane | Uruguay

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!