THE survivors of a plane crash over the Andes in 1972 who were forced to resort to cannibalism to stay alive have said they “got used to eating human flesh”.
Sixteen survivors of Uruguayan Flight 571, which was taking a team of amateur rugby players and their supporters to Chile, came together to mark the 50th anniversary of their ordeal – known as the Miracle in the Andes.
Their grisly tale was set out in Piers Paul Read’s best-selling book Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors which was adapted into the film Alive in 1993 and now Netflix is working on an adaptation.
Survivor Carlos Paez said it was the duty of the survivors to travel the world and share the story of the 72 days the spent in the freezing conditions of the mountains when they were forced to eat the corpses of their friends.
He told The Sunday Times: “I’ve done six million miles on American Airlines.
“I’m condemned to tell this story forever more, just like the Beatles always having to sing Yesterday.’”
There were 45 people on board the plane which included Montevideo’s Old Christians Club’s rugby team and its supporters on October 13, 1972.
Authorities said that during the flight the pilot veered off course in thick fog before crashing into the Andes mountains.
Twelve passengers were killed in the crash and another 17 died from injuries and suffocation due to an avalanche that occurred days later.
Businessman Ramon Sabella, 70, said he held one of the dying passengers in his arms as she passed away.
After 10 days, the survivors learned from a radio on board the search had been called off.
He remembered the agonising choice the 16 survivors made when medial student Roberto Canessa suggested they eat the bodies of the dead so they could survive.
Sabella told the paper: “Of course, the idea of eating human flesh was terrible, repugnant.
“It was hard to put in your mouth. But we got used to it.”
He added: “In a sense, our friends were some of the first organ donors in the world – they helped to nourish us and kept us alive.”
Paez said they had no other option if they wanted to live, adding that human meat “doesn’t taste of anything, really.”
Canessa said their decision was made particularly grim because the bodies belonged to their teammates and friends.
He said: “My only trouble with it was that these were the bodies of my friends. I had to go to their families later to explain.”
Canessa, who used glass to cut the flesh, added he took some comfort in knowing that he would be okay if the others had used his body to feed them, should he have died instead.
SURVIVORS MADE A PACT
That sentiment was shared by the other survivors, Sabella said, who made a pact that those who lived could eat the ones who died from the exposure.
He said: “We promised each other that if one of us died, the others were obliged to eat their bodies.”
Having spent almost two months in the mountains, the survivors had lost hope of ever being rescued, so Canessa and Fernando Parrado set off to find help.
Having filled their rugby socks with human flesh, the pair set off and climbed about three miles down the mountain, which exhausted them with the journey taking ten days.
Antonio Vizitin had originally joined them in the desperate search for help, but had been forced to turn back because they didn’t have enough food to feed three people.
During their descent they came across a raging river which halted their search but Canessa and Parrado spotted Sergio Catalán, a Chilean shepherd, on the other side who could not hear them over the water.
SHEPHERD WENT TO GET HELP
Luckily, the shepherd returned the following day and tossed a rock with a pen and pencil to the survivors, who explained their terrible ordeal.
The shepherd managed to alert the authorities to the plight of the survivors.
A multi-day helicopter rescue was conducted and was able to save the other survivors, many of them had lost half their body weight.
Sabella said: “They took us to hospital in Santiago. I remember the joy of that first hot bath.”
STILL HAUNTED BY ORDEAL
Despite them still being haunted by their harrowing ordeal, many survivors have made the most out of their rescue.
The survivors were Roberto Canessa, Fernando Parrado, Carlos Rodriguez, Jose Algorta, Alfredo Delgado, Daniel Fernandez, Roberto Francios, Roy Harley, Jose Inciarte, Alvaro Mangino, Javier Methol, Ramon Sabella, Adolfo Strauch, Eduardo Strauch, Antonio Vizintia and Gustavo Zerbino.
Paez, now a grandfather of five, travels the world as a motivational speaker telling his story.
Roy Harley became an engineer and is now retired, aged 70.
Gustavo Zerbino played a key part in boosting Uruguay’s rugby fortunes, gathering enough new members to revive the team and win 12 Uruguayan Championships in 14 years.
He is also credited for his country’s first rugby victory against Chile.
Canessa is a pediatric cardiologist and won a British Council Scholarship to study at London’s Guy’s Hospital.
“God has been very nice to me,” he said, adding that he sees his patients having the same will to live that he experienced in the mountains.
“I tell them we have to climb mountains, and I will be your guide.”