04 Oct 2017 15:46 IST

The story of surviving a crash and staying Alive

45 years ago, 16 passengers survived a crash. But their ordeal had just started

When it's about survival, will you do the unthinkable? Let's put this in other words. Imagine you are trapped high in Andes mountains at about 3,600 metres altitude, it's -34 degrees Celsius and you have nothing to eat. Except for the body of your friend. Will you turn cannibal to survive?

Fourty-five years ago, that was the question facing Roberto Canessa.

He and 15 of his co-passengers had survived the crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, on the Andes mountains in Argentina on October 13, 1972. Within 10 days, their meagre supplies were over and with no rescue team on sight, the 16 were faced with the question none of us would find palatable.

Should they eat the flesh from the dead bodies, preserved in the cold, to remain alive? Many of the dead were their friends, making the decision even more painful.

But with no alternative in sight, Canessa and his fellow survivors went ahead.

Using blades or shard of glass they cut strips of frozen flesh. One by one — some took more time to be convinced than the others — the 16 ate the flesh to keep breathing. The decision was critical. Now with protein keeping them warm and safe from severe bouts of hunger, Canessa and others could think of ways to get out of their ordeal.

Especially now that the very next day, they heard on the radio that the rescue mission to save them had been called off.

But the rescue didn't come fast or easy. Canessa and one more survivor trekked for several days before they met a Chilean (the crash site was close to the Chile border). A few days later, the two were in the helicopters to pick and save the remaining survivors of that ill-fated flight. Turning cannibal had helped them bear the elements for 62 more days. In total, the 16 were in the mountains for 72 days.

A legend

Canessa, then 19-year-old, was a medical student and was part of a rugby team that was on a tour. Decades later, Canessa, now a paediatric cardiologist, recalled those 72 days in a book titled I had to survive: How a plane crash in the Andes inspired my calling to save lives. Talking to People magazine last year, Canessa recalled telling his mother that he survived eating dead friends. "That's okay, that's okay, sweetie," his mother replied. The 16 survivors meet every year, bringing along their families and close friends.

The crash and the incredible survival story was later brought on the silver screen in 1993, through the movie, Alive, starring Josh Hamilton as Canessa. Though the movie was not a huge box office success, it did bring out the agony and horror faced by the survivors and their incredible determination to survive.

Interestingly, the aircraft that crashed into the mountains was a Fairchild FH-227. The turboprop passenger plane suffered a poor track record, with 23 of the 78 built crashing. By 2010, only one of the aircraft was in service.

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine.)