Flight Number 571

By: Isabella Schneider (S4 DEC)

72 days between life and death-Flight Number 571

A Uruguayan rugby team boards an airplane with their friends and family; none of the 45 passengers know this trip will go horribly wrong. When the aircraft ends up crashing in the Andes, they will have to do the unimaginable to survive.


On the 12th of October 1972, the Old Christians Club rugby union team (consisting of 19 people) and 21 of their family members and closest friends board flight number 571. They are from Montevideo, the Uruguayan capital, and have become quite famous in their country, having already won two national titles. The sports club was founded in 1962, so at the point of the accident it is barely 10 years old. They are on their way to Santiago, the capital of Chile, to have a match with one of their main rivals, the Old Boys Club, an English rugby team. On board the aircraft are also five crew members, including the pilot Colonel Julio César Ferradas. He is experienced and has a total of 5,117 flying hours on his record, and next to him in the cockpit sits the co-pilot Dante Héctor Lagurara. The machine they are flying is a four-year-old Uruguayan Air Force twin turboprop Fairchild FH-227. They depart from Carrasco International Airport.

The accident:

They have to stop overnight in Mendoza, an Argentinian city, due to a storm brewing above the Andes. However, the flight conditions seem to have improved soon after, so, on the 13th, they are ready to continue. There is a direct route from Mendoza to Santiago, but it is considered safer to fly a longer route, since that would require flying over the highest peaks of the Andes, which are very close to the maximum height an airplane like the turboprop Fairchild can reach. Therefore, the pilot Julio, who is training the co-pilot Dante, flies over a lower part of the mountains. These were hidden by the thunderclouds from the storm, and so, it is presumed, the fatal mistake happened: Lagurara misjudged the aircraft’s position and, thinking they had already passed the Andes, requested to descend. Unaware of the situation, air traffic control granted this. There is turbulence, and the plane drops several hundred meters when it hits a downdraft. At first, the players joke about it, but soon one of them notices the mountains ahead. They are too close. In a desperate attempt, the pilot tries to gain altitude, but the lower part of the machine hits the ridge. After this, the aircraft hits the mountain two or three times, as it is later recounted, during which first the right wing and then the rear part are torn off. The plane slides off several snowbanks and, in the process, the second wing is ripped off as well. It finally slides down a steep glacier at 350 km/h, and all the seats are catapulted forward because of the impact, crushing the cockpit and immediately killing the pilot. The machine stops at a height of about 3,600 metres, approximately 80 km away from the route they should have been on. The co-pilot, who is fatally wounded and in a lot of pain, tells one of the survivors to take his revolver and shoot him, but, as all the members of the rugby team are Christian, they decline. He dies shortly after. Six people were pulled out when the fuselage ripped apart, and six more die almost immediately after from severe injuries.

The days after:

Left with only 33 people, the survivors now have to face the grim reality they are confronted with: alone, with very little food and temperatures of 30-40 degrees below zero and missing some of their family members. Many are wounded and suffer from broken limbs and severe bruising. Nando Parrado, one of the rugby players, has a skull fracture and remains in a coma for several days, a time in which he believes himself to be dead. Only when he becomes thirsty does he realise he is alive. Once awake, he had to accept the loss of his mother, sister, and two childhood friends. The remaining people tore out the seats and barricaded themselves on the inside of the aircraft to fend off the cold, after which they took inventory of their food, which wasn’t much, just some chocolate bars and a few snacks. The survivors soon found a radio but couldn’t use it to communicate with the outside world. That way, on the 11th day after they had gone missing, they discovered that the search for them had been halted. Another problem that isn’t as obvious as others is the snow: it reflects the rays of the sun and causes the survivors to get sunburn and their eyes to redden, but luckily, they have sunscreen, make-up, and sunglasses. Many also catch a throat infection, because of constantly eating snow and ice as a source of water. The solution to this is to make a contraption which exposes the snow to sunlight and catches the drops as it melts. Soon, the supplies dwindle and, surrounded only by ice and rock, they decide to eat their friends’ flesh. Seventeen days after the crash, on the 29th of October, while everyone is sleeping inside the hollowed-out machine, an avalanche hits them. Eight people remain asphyxiated by the snow, and it takes the remaining people two days to dig themselves out, only to be forced to stay inside due to a raging blizzard and consume the flesh of the recently deceased.


The lack of animals or any kind of vegetation forces the group to turn to cannibalism, the exact definition being “the practice of eating the flesh of one’s own species”, meaning it refers to all species. The correct term is anthropophagy, which specifically relates to humans. After a week, all food has run out, and so they search the wreckage, again and again, until they are so hungry, they begin to eat the leather from suitcases and the stuffing of the seats. Of course, this only makes them feel worse. Around the 10th day, the group acknowledges that if they want to survive, it would be unavoidable to eat the flesh of the deceased, the people who had previously been their friends and family. The corpses have been preserved by the snow and the freezing temperatures. It wasn’t a rash or impulsive reaction to the circumstances, but something everyone had been thinking about. In the end, after weighing up the options, they took the decision as a group. All the members were very religious and feared eternal damnation or punishment in the afterlife for committing such a sin, but they tried to justify their actions by comparing it to the Eucharist, which is the representation of Jesus’ flesh and blood through bread and wine. Roberto Canessa, now a politician, is the one to make the first cut, using a shard of glass from the broken airplane windows, and also is the first one to try the frozen flesh. They dried the meat in the sun, to make eating it more bearable. In the beginning, they only manage to consume skin, muscle and fat of the dead, but as time progresses, they also try internal organs and even the brain. Parrado, the man who had previously lain in a coma, protected the bodies of his mother and sister until the end. They were buried on the mountain, untouched. Numa Turcatti, a 24-year-old friend of the team, refused to eat the meat and died on the 60th day, weighing only 25 kilograms.


Many days pass, and gradually it becomes warmer (in Uruguay, summer is when we have winter). The snow around the wreck begins melting, and the group decides to make an expedition of some sort. This had been tried before, but due to things like altitude sickness and the extreme cold during the night without the protection of the plane’s fuselage, such plans have been abandoned. They head east first, and find the tail of the aircraft, which contains some supplies, extra clothing and a heavy battery. They bring the radio from their camp to the rear end, but are unable to charge it, because of different voltages. Now though, on the 62nd day of their ordeal, Nando Parrado, Canessa and Antonio Vizintín take off in search of help. They follow the words of the now dead co-pilot, since he had, shortly before he died, mentioned being past Curicó. Unfortunately, this information is false, and they are still far away from civilisation. Since supplies are running low, they agree for Vizintín to return to the others, as Nando and Canessa continue. They trek for over ten days and in the meantime reach a peak they had hoped would provide some sort of orientation, but this proves to be useless. However, they do not give up hope and continue, and finally, on the 9th afternoon of their expedition, the 71st day since the crash, they come across some cows. They find a river, and on the other side, they can see three men. Because the noise of the flooding waters is too loud to understand anything, the shepherds promise to come the day after. When they arrive, they throw a rock with pen and paper attached over to the strangers. Nando and Canessa ask for help, and soon they are rescued. The Chilean Air Force flies to the crash site with a helicopter, but due to weight limits and a difficult terrain they can only take half the survivors. The others are saved a day later, on the 23rd of December, having spent over two months in the Andes.


After their return to society, the group had initially told the authorities that they had survived thanks to food they had brought with them and nearby vegetation, probably fearing public backlash and planning to discuss all the details with their families. Two pictures, taken by helpers of the Andean Relief Corps, the team that had rescued the survivors, were published in two Uruguayan newspapers on the 26th of December, three days after the rescue. It depicted a half-eaten leg, and both newspapers declared that all survivors had committed cannibalism. The outrage in the families of the dead was immense, as they felt betrayed and angered. The public also harshly criticised the decisions the passengers had made, so they hosted a press conference in a Uruguayan college, where Alfredo Delgado, a public speaker, explained the circumstances and events that occurred after the crash. After this, the outcry diminished, and the families were more understanding. Something that was very important to the Christian survivors was a priest confirming that they would not be damned, as they only resorted to cannibalism because of their survival situation.


The victims’ remains were buried only 400-800 metres away from the crash site, and they now lie in a common grave. Because of the burial location, family members weren’t allowed to attend. The government chose this place because they believe it to be safe from avalanches, and close by one can find a small, simple stone altar and an orange cross, so it can be seen from far away. There also is a metal plaque that says “El mundo a sus hermanos uruguayos cerca, oh dios de ti”. Translated, this means “The world is close to its Uruguayan brothers, oh God, to you”. The fuselage was poured over with gasoline and burned down. The whole ordeal is documented in the Andes Museum 1972, and several survivors have written books. The mothers of 11 victims have founded a charity that supports children and encourages them to read and learn, and the crash site attracts thousands of people every year who come to honour the memory of the deceased.

Closing Statement:

In the end, it’s up to you what to think of all this. It certainly was a tragedy, and many people died, were hurt, and most likely scarred for life. Only 16 of the 45 passengers survived, 29 didn’t make it. All we can do is not forget the victims and support those that are in need of help. I hope this article evoked many questions in you: Do you condemn the survivors for doing what they did? How strong are your moral convictions? What are your beliefs? What would you have done in this situation? What would your friends do, if something similar ever were to happen to them? We can’t really judge; we haven’t lived through the same experiences as them. We only know the facts: 45 people crashed in the Andes. Many died, either through injuries, getting sucked out of the aircraft or the avalanche that followed. There was nothing the others could have done to prevent it. They didn’t kill anyone. If they hadn’t eaten their friends, there would be no survivors and perhaps we still wouldn’t have found the wreckage. Only more people would be dead: it’s not as if the deceased would still be alive. Perhaps we can presume that the initial victims would have wanted their friends to survive, to move on, not to feel guilty. But we don’t know that for sure.

I’ll let you think about all this for a while.

Isabella Schneider

Sources: Wikipedia (english): Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, Nando Parrado

Wikipedia (german): Fuerza-Aérea-Uruguaya Flug 571

Articles: (Simple Flying) Extreme Survival: The Story Of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571

(New York Post) Legendary plane crash survivor on turning to cannibalism: “It’s not as hard as it seems… you don’t want to die.”

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