Mystery of Flight 571: On October 12, 1972, a small chartered plane took off from Uruguay, South America. This plane was going to Chile’s capital Santiago. Carrying some tall rugby players. There were a total of 45 passengers, with some players’ family and friends tagging along. This flight was not going to be long. It usually only takes 3 hours to get from Uruguay to Santiago. But on the way you meet the huge Andes Mountains. The Andes mountain range in South America is the longest mountain range in the world. Apart from the Himalayan Mountains, the highest mountains are found here. These beautiful mountains become disastrous for the travelers in our story.
That day, October 12, there was a storm in the mountains. Due to which the plane could not take off. The pilots then decided to abort the flight and try to fly again the next day. The plane landed in Mendoza, Argentina for the night. The following day, 13 October, the aircraft took off again at 2:18 pm. The pilots made sure the weather had cleared. So it was a smooth flight for the next hour. At 3:21 pm the pilots begin descent from the aircraft. The plane was very close to Santiago but still in the mountains. Since there are high mountains right next to the city. While descending, suddenly there was a terrible turmoil. The plane started shaking horizontally. At this time clouds gathered around the plane. Nothing was visible except clouds.
Suddenly an alarm went off in the plane, and warning lights started flashing. No one understood why this was so. The rugby players in the passenger seats weren’t afraid. He did not take this unrest seriously. Amidst the banter, a traveler looked out the window and saw the clouds clearing. But then he noticed that they were dangerously close to a mountain. As the plane emerged from the clouds, the pilots realized that they were heading towards a huge cliff.
In an immediate panic, they try to lift the plane up. The plane’s ground collision alarm was ringing loudly. Pilots apply maximum power to gain altitude. To fly safely over the mountain. Unfortunately it was too late.
While going up, the rear part of the plane hit the mountain. The entire rear part of the plane got separated. The two rows of seats behind literally flew off the plane. Three passengers took off with it and disappeared. The plane continued to fly upwards for a few more seconds but then suddenly, it started falling down.
A few seconds later there was another collision. The left wing of the plane broke. Some other passengers flew out of the plane and fell down. Now only the front part of the plane was left and it fell into a glacier. It slid down the glacier at a speed of 350 km/h and ultimately fell 700 meters and crashed. Everything in the plane was destroyed. Passenger seats were torn from the base of the plane. The cockpit of the aircraft was completely damaged and the pilots were killed instantly.
This plane was lying broken on an unknown mountain in the Andes at an altitude of 3,570 meters. Surprisingly, out of the 45 people on the boat… 33 were still alive. He somehow survived this accident. The problem was that many of them were injured and no one knew where they were trapped. It was later revealed that the aircraft was 80 km off its planned route. And this painful story of survival has just begun, friends. At that time they would not have even imagined. Nor can you imagine now, what happened to these survivors next. This is the heartbreaking story of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571. The plane crashed in the Andes Mountains. There were 45 people in it.
Immediately after the accident, there were two survivors who were not seriously injured. First, 19-year-old Roberto Canessa and second, 20-year-old Gustavo Zerbino. Since they were both medical students, they immediately began investigating who was alive and how to help the injured. He saw many passengers suffering serious injuries. One of them was 23-year-old Fernando Parrado who was in a coma due to a fractured skull. These two medical students tried their best to help the survivors. Meanwhile, the Chilean Air Search and Rescue Service received a notification within an hour of the plane’s disappearance. Four aircraft were deployed to search for survivors.
They tried to locate the crash site from evening till night, but unfortunately, they found nothing. Rescue service officials, after listening to radio transmissions, concluded that the plane must have crashed in a remote and inaccessible area. The problem was that the plane was white in color and it had crashed in a place where there was white snow all around. It was very difficult to locate it in the snowy mountains.
On the night of 13 October, the remaining passengers were very hopeful. They hoped that somehow they could spend a night there and find a way to escape the cold and then someone would find them the next day. Five injured passengers could not survive that snowy night. The number of survivors dropped from 33 to 28. These survivors used what remained of the aircraft as a shelter. They used luggage, seats and ice to seal off the back of the plane so they could stay warm inside. The next day, on October 14, 11 separate aircraft from Argentina, Chile and Uruguay were deployed in the search operation. The search area he chose was correct. The location of the accident site was in that search area. But still they could not find the accident site. Survivors tried to use lipstick to write SOS on the roof of the plane.
She began writing SOS but soon realized she did not have enough lipstick to write all the letters. They then tried to use suitcases to make a large cross in the snow so that search planes flying above could see them. But they soon realized it wasn’t working. That day he saw not one, not two, but three planes flying over him.
They shouted, waved and tried their best to make the plane pay attention to them, but they failed. Another day passed in this effort. The next day, October 15, the survivors realized they needed water to survive. A traveler named Fito Strauch found a way to get water. He used a metal sheet as a solar collector to concentrate the sun’s rays to melt ice. And he collected the water drops in empty wine bottles. Apart from this, many passengers used the seat cushion as snowshoes.
And wool was used in the seat covers to protect them from the cold. The next day, on October 16, three days after the accident, Fernando Parrado woke up from his coma. As soon as he regained consciousness. He watched as his mother died in the accident and his 19-year-old sister was seriously injured. Parrado tried his best to keep his sister alive, he brought her food and water. But as days passed, 8 days after the accident, his sister succumbed to her injuries. Such accidents remind us how uncertain life is, and how unpredictable it is. We don’t know if we will survive. That is why it is said, live every moment.
Most of the passengers were from coastal areas. He had never seen snow before. And now, suddenly, in the cold of -30° Celsius, at such altitude without proper food and water, they were somehow surviving. There was another problem in these bad conditions. Snow blindness. When the sun’s ultraviolet rays reflect off the snow and ice of the mountains, it can damage your eyes. This is called snow blindness. These survivors had only 3 pairs of sunglasses. On October 21, 8 days after the accident, search and rescue teams gave up. They believed that since they had found no trace of survivors in those 8 days, there was no point in continuing the search operation. After so many days there was little chance that anyone would have survived. So after 142 hours of search operation. This search operation was officially stopped.
Meanwhile, the survivors found a transistor radio between the seats of the plane. Roy Harley, a survivor rugby player, was also an electronics lover. So he tried to turn on the radio. He made improvements and made a longer antenna. And because of his efforts the radio finally started working. This radio could only communicate one way. The survivors could hear the conversations but could not send any messages. Eleven days after the accident, he turned on the radio and learned that the search operation had been cancelled. His heart was completely broken. Some people start crying after hearing this news.
Some people started praying to God with folded hands. “Realizing that their world is alive and they think you are dead.” Fernando Parrado was the only one who did not react much after hearing this news. Because he was planning something else. By the 11th day, the survivors were running out of food. They didn’t have much to start with. There were only 8 chocolate bars, 1 tin of mussels, 3 small jars of jam, a jar of almonds. A box of peanuts, some dates, candies, dried plums and a few bottles of wine. A few days after the accident, they began rationing food. He ate very little every day.
Parrado ate chocolate covered peanuts for 3 days. Just a peanut. But rationing was not enough. Because the food was almost over. At an altitude of 3,800 metres, there were no trees or plants, nor any animals that could be killed and eaten. By the 11th day the food was completely gone and some people tried to eat parts of the plane. They tried to eat the cotton on the seats and the leather on the seats. But this made him more ill. In a situation when there was no option other than dying of hunger. These survivors did something that will surprise you. To survive they decided they had no choice but to eat the dead bodies of their friends and family.
It was not easy to take this decision. Because most of the people killed in this accident were friends, classmates, family members or relatives. “We have to eat. And the only possible things were the dead bodies of people who were on this plane.” Since Canessa came up with this idea, he was the first one to try it. Some other people tried, but they couldn’t do it. He refused then. But after 2 days, with no other option, finally, they too chose to eat human flesh.
On October 29, 16 days after the crash, this food source for the survivors was also rapidly depleting. He did not have any action plan. No one knew what to do next. The situation couldn’t have been worse.’ But then that night, they heard a loud murmur. It turned out to be an avalanche. A large amount of snow was coming down from the top of the mountain so fast, that it filled the broken plane with ice.
Eight people were lost in the snow and suffocated. Only 19 survived. “Ted, Roberto, you had it. You’re going to d!e.” That’s it. “Great feeling of heat between my legs because I was peeing on myself and that’s all.” The remaining 19 people were also trapped in a small space under the snow. Parrado used a metal pole to make a hole in the ice, to allow some ventilation. After working hard for two days, they dug a tunnel under the snow and with great difficulty they managed to come to the surface. As soon as they went outside, they saw that a blizzard was approaching and it would be wise to go back into the ice cave to survive.
For the next three days, the survivors somehow managed to survive in the cramped space. After 3 days, they went back to the surface and the weather was clear. After coming out, the survivors realized that no one was coming to save them. If they wanted to survive, they would need to try themselves. There was no point sitting at the crash site and waiting for help. They needed to try their best until their last breath.’ Canessa, Parrado, and Visintin were among the strongest survivors. They decided together to give them more food and warm clothes and that they would try to move around in search of help. The first task was to guess the location. Before the crash, the co-pilot said his plane had passed through Curico. So they figured if they walked a few kilometers west they would surely reach some rural areas of Chile. But his guess was very wrong. Actually, the co-pilot did not know where he was taking the plane. In fact, their crash site was 89 km east.
In the middle of the Andes Mountains. Still unaware of this, he took rest for a few days to increase his energy. On November 15, 33 days after the accident, the three men set out to find help. After traveling for hours eastward, they found the tail piece of their plane. This was the part of the plane that broke first. Inside they found several suitcases, boxes of chocolates, three meat patties, a bottle of rum, extra clothes, comic books, and some medicine. And with that, they found the plane’s two-way radio system. A radio that can facilitate not only incoming communications, but also sending messages. They decided to spend the night there. The next day of the mission, they head a little further east, but after discussion they decide they should try to get the plane’s radio going. They decided to remove some batteries from the main body of the plane and then try to start the radio. They will be able to send SOS calls. They found 24 kg of batteries in the tail section, but it was too heavy. They could not make it back to the main body of the accident site.
So he decided to try to get it started there. They went back and enlisted the help of Roy Harley who had some knowledge of electronics but unfortunately the plan did not work. The thing was that the aircraft’s electrical system worked with 115V AC and their batteries were 24V DC. He had no means of connecting them. He tried his best to start the radio for a few days but soon realized there was no other way. To survive, they now had to start moving west. On December 11, 59 days after the accident, he was hit by an avalanche. Three more survivors died. “I was completely caught in the storm, the avalanche, it was the most disgusting silence you can imagine. I couldn’t move…” Only 16 were left. To climb the mountains in the west, they needed a way to sleep at night. How could they survive in the cold nights of -30° Celsius? Among the survivors was an 18-year-old boy, Carlos Miguel Rodríguez. She remembered that her mother had taught her how to sew with needles.
He was carrying needles and a sewing kit with him. His idea was to sew different pieces of clothing to make a large sleeping bag. The idea came to my mind that you could make a sleeping bag from insulation. But not only did I have this idea, I also created it myself. He did this. The next day, December 12, two months had passed since the day the accident occurred. These three brave men, Parrado, Canessa, and Visintin, set out without any mountaineering gear to climb the glacier. “The only sure thing for the West was Chile.” This was what going west meant.
They have to climb the mountain first before going down. They still believed in him even though they were only a few kilometers away. Therefore, he hoped that walking for 2-3 days would help him. So they packed a 3-day supply of meat. “And you can imagine without any skills, without any training, you are like a child! You’re facing a blizzard, you try to go straight up, you may be using your hands and feet, you’re slipping and sliding. And with every step you take up, you slide half a step back.” To protect himself from the cold, Parrado wore three pairs of jeans.
He was also wearing 3 sweaters over his T-shirt. And 4 pairs of socks on his feet. He was also wearing a plastic shopping bag over his socks. It was very cold. He had no technical gear, no map, no compass, and no climbing experience. And at this altitude the air becomes quite thin, and lack of oxygen starts to be felt. But despite this, they continued moving towards the mountain. The sleeping bag he had stitched was useful at night. Throughout the day they continued to move forward, taking slow steps. All three of them slept as close to each other as possible, in that one sleeping bag. And as soon as the sun rose, they started walking. Slowly they continued moving forward together. On the second day, third day, and on the morning of the fourth day they realized that their guess was completely wrong. He could see no end to his journey ahead.
Because they had little or no food, Visintin decided to return to the crash site and only the other two would proceed further so that less food would be required. On 15 December the withdrawal to Visintin was easy which was easy as it was all downhill. He used the plane’s seat as a sled and reached the crash site within an hour. It took him three days to climb this mountain but in just an hour, he was back at the crash site. Parrado and Canessa continued climbing the mountain. Three hours later, they reached the top of the mountain and saw that all around them, as far as they could see, there were only mountains.
There was nothing there except snowy mountains. “I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t even think because what we saw was horrible. Instead of lush green valleys, we saw mountains and snow-clad peaks all around us for 360°, all the way to the horizon.” With great difficulty, Parrado tried to find something else to watch. On the far western horizon, he saw two mountain peaks without snow. They agreed that they should continue traveling in the same direction. They could not accept defeat. Parrado and Canessa continue hiking for several days. At last, they reached a valley. A valley where they could see a river flowing.
In such a situation, reaching the river was a great relief. Because while traveling downstream of the river, it was easy to find the path down the slope. They kept walking and walking. And finally, after 9 days of tracking, on December 20, they might find some presence of humans. He saw some cows in the fields. By this point they were too tired to walk any further. Just then, on the other side of the river, “Look, a man riding on a horse!” He saw three persons riding on horses. Parrado tried to shout. But the water of the river was so fast that they could not hear its sound. But by chance, one of them sees Parrado and Canessa. He looked at them and shouted back. “Tomorrow!” He said he would come back the next day. The next day, the man comes back on the horse and this time brought with him some paper and pencils. He attached the paper and pencil to a stone with a thread and threw it on the other side of the river. For the first time, Parrado had the opportunity to send his message to the world.
“I come from a plane that fell in the mountains,” Parrado wrote in Spanish on the paper. That he was from Uruguay. And was walking on foot for 10 days. And his injured friends were at the accident site. He wrote that he needed help immediately, but did not know how to get help. They didn’t have food. They were weak. And now he no longer has the ability to walk. He asked to save. He asked where they were. On the other hand, the person who received this message was a Chilean farmer, Sergio Catalan. He read the note and gestured to her that he understood. After talking to two of his friends, it turns out that he vaguely remembers it.
A few months ago he had heard the news that a plane had crashed. And when these friends realized this, they were shocked. They couldn’t believe that there were survivors of the 2-month-old plane crash. Sergio threw a piece of bread on the other side of the river and for the next 10 hours, he rode west on horseback. They were still far away from any village or human settlement. Finally, when he reached the nearest town, the Army Command was informed and they contacted Army Headquarters in Santiago. Meanwhile, the farmers brought Parrado and Canessa to Los Matanes on horses.
Where they finally get some rest. It was found that on sheer willpower, they have traveled 61 km on foot in the last 10 days. Canessa had lost half his body weight. Then his weight was only 44 kg. As soon as other people came to know about his story. This became international news.
This heart-wrenching story was truly unbelievable. The Chilean Air Force dispatched 3 helicopters to immediately rescue the survivors. Army officers interviewed Parrado and Canessa to obtain information about the location. Parrado had brought with him the pilot’s flight chart and had planned the locations where they would be hiking. Army officials took him with them in a helicopter to investigate the accident site. With Parrado’s help the remaining survivors were eventually discovered by army commanders. On December 22, 1972, 70 days after the accident, two search and rescue helicopters finally reached the survivors to save their lives.
In total, 16 survivors were rescued. They were in very bad condition. Altitude sickness, dehydration, broken bones, malnutrition. But they all recovered. This story is a lesson about hope for the world. If you are determined to do something and have patience and humanity, then nothing is impossible. If you want, you can achieve things which you could never even dream of. As they say, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” That’s why this disaster also has another name: Miracle of the Andes.