Survivors who had long been given up for dead were found alive 45 years ago today, huddled inside the wreckage of their plane which had crashed high in the snow-covered Argentine Andes 72 days previously.
In the days that followed, the true horror of their ordeal was revealed when it emerged they had been forced to resort to cannibalism in order to survive.
The Chilean Air Force finally located the crashed plane on December 22nd, 1972. The search had been abandoned more than two months earlier, but was reignited when two survivors staggered from the mountains after a desperate 10-day trek through arctic conditions to fetch help.
In total, 16 of the original 40 passengers and five crew aboard the aircraft eventually made it out alive, all aged between 19 and 26 except for one 36-year-old businessman. Many of the passengers were members of a Catholic rugby union team from Montevideo, in Uruguay, who were travelling to play a match in Chile. As well as the players, the were family members and others connected with the team on board.
The chartered flight of the Uruguayan Air Force twin-propeller plane had set out from Montevideo on October 12th, but was forced by inclement weather to make an unscheduled overnight stop in Mendoza, Argentina. The next day it set out again but had to alter its route due to the weather and flew too low in heavy cloud cover above the Andes.
The aircraft clipped a mountain peak, tearing off its right wing, then hit another peak, ripping off the left wing. Still airborne, the fuselage plummeted to the ground, sliding down a steep mountain slope before finally coming to rest in a snow bank. A dozen people died in the crash of shortly afterwards, some having been thrown out of the fuselage. By the next morning another five were dead from their injuries, while several more had serious injuries including broken limbs.
Two of the survivors were medical students who did their best to patch up the injured, but the survivors had almost no medical equipment. Their biggest problem was the extreme cold at an altitude of almost 12,000 feet and with no source of heat. They managed to turn part of the wrecked fuselage into an improvised shelter, blocking up as many holes as they could, making bedding from the seats and scavenging extra clothes from what luggage they could find.
There was only a small amount of food, mainly chocolate bars, snacks and some bottles of wine, which they immediately began rationing. At first their hopes of rescue were high, but as days passed, despair began to set in. One survivor found a small transistor radio and they were able to hear news reports of the intensive search and rescue effort, but after 11 days on the mountain a broadcast announced the search had been called off, with all the passengers and crew presumed dead.
More of the injured continued to die and on October 29th an avalanche crashed down on the wreckage, killing eight as they slept inside. Others managed to dig themselves out, but by now just 19 were left alive. The hardest decision came when their food supplies began to run out. Now they must either starve to death or begin consuming the bodies of dead passengers, preserved by the snow and extreme cold. It was either that or starve to death. In truth, there was no choice.
Gradually the survivors realised their only chance of escape lay in their own hands. On December 12th, a full two months after the crash, three of the fittest set out to bring help by trekking over the mountain peaks. They had fashioned a three-man sleeping bag from insulation salvaged from the fuselage – their only hope of survival through the bitterly cold nights. On the third day of their trek they reached the summit of the nearest peak and saw more mountains spread out before them as far as they could see. Realising their journey would take longer than expected, they sent one of the team back so the other two would have more rations. The returning man took just an hour to get back to the fuselage using an improvised sleigh, as it was all downhill.
Eventually, and against all the odds, the remaining two came upon a narrow valley and began following a small stream down and out of the mountains. Finally, after 10 days they spotted some hill shepherds on horseback and managed to communicate with them across a river. One of the shepherds rode for several hours to the nearest town to raise the alarm.
Back at the crash site, there was immense relief when a crackly radio broadcast announced that two men had emerged from the mountains with news of other survivors. On the afternoon of December 22nd, the first two rescue helicopters arrived, guided to the crash site by one of the pair who had trekked to safety. They were only able to evacuate half the survivors that day due to bad weather, but the rest were rescued the following day. All were taken to hospital where they were treated for conditions including frostbite, dehydration, scurvy, broken bones, altitude sickness and malnutrition.
Their incredible story was later told in a book published in 1974 and based on interviews with the survivors and their families. In 1993 it was adapted into a feature film, “Alive!”, with three of the survivors acting as advisors to the filmmakers. Several other books and TV documentaries have also recounted the events of what has become known as the ‘Miracle of the Andes’.