A Rage To Live

Andes Plane Crash Survivors Tell Their Story In Stranded

"How does destiny work?" wonders Roberto Canessa, looking back at the stunning events of more than 35 years ago. It's not an idle question - his story naturally inspires questions about the capriciousness of fate. Canessa was one of 16 survivors of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, which crashed in the Andes Mountains on October 13, 1972. Of the plane's five crew members and 40 passengers, including a rugby team from Stella Maris College in Montevideo, 12 died in the crash and five succumbed to injuries the next morning.

Many of the passengers, anticipating a holiday in sunny Chile, had never seen snow and lacked cold-weather clothing. Some, including Canessa, were medical students, and they set broken bones with splints improvised from salvaged airplane parts. They strictly rationed what food they had - a few bars of chocolate, some bottles of wine - until that ran out and the passengers ate cosmetic powder and considered eating strips of leather from luggage.

The survivors initially expected they would be rescued, but on the 11th day, their hopes were cruelly dashed when they heard over a transistor radio that the search for them had been called off. The remains of the shattered white airplane could not be seen in the snowy mountains. Many more died in the following days, including eight who were suffocated when an avalanche buried the fuselage. After enduring near-starvation and freezing conditions, the remaining survivors were rescued after 72 days, thanks to a grueling 12-day trek by two of the men and a chance encounter with a Chilean huaso (cowboy) on horseback.

Stranded: I Have Come from a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains, revisits the story with interviews with the survivors, their relatives and rescuers, and reenactments of the events. The film, in Spanish with English subtitles, also documents a 2006 expedition by the survivors to the crash site on the Chile-Argentina border, where a monument commemorates the dead. The most notorious part of the story was that the starving survivors had resorted to eating their dead comrades. The revelation is sensational, but it's ultimately a mere detail in a story that can justly be described as a miracle. And if "miracle" is too pietistic, then at the very least it's a breathtaking demonstration of human courage, cooperation and the will to survive.

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