Manage episode 259813507 series 2659594
If you’re scared of flying, here’s why you’re right! This episode, we’re covering the tragic fate of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, also known as The Miracle of the Andes.
Written, hosted and produced by Alix Penn and Carmella Lowkis.
Theme music by Daniel Wackett. Find him on Twitter @ds_wack and Soundcloud as Daniel Wackett.
Logo by Riley. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @tallestfriend.
Casting Lots is part of the Morbid Audio Podcast Network. Network sting by Mikaela Moody. Find her on Bandcamp as mikaelamoody1.
- Constantine, N. (2018). A History of Cannibalism: From ancient cultures to survival stories and modern psychopaths. London: Arcturus Publishing.
- I Am Alive: Surviving the Andes Plane Crash. (2010). [DVD] Directed by Brad Osborne. Dallas, TX: AMS Pictures.
- Read, P. P. (2012). Alive: The True Story of the Andes Survivors. London: Random House.
- Schutt, B. (2017). Eat Me: A Natural and Unnatural History of Cannibalism. London: Profile Books.
Alix: Have you ever been really, really hungry?
Carmella: You’re listening to Casting Lots: A Survival Cannibalism Podcast.
A: I’m Alix.
C: I’m Carmella.
A: And now let’s tuck into the gruesome history of this ultimate taboo…
[Intro Music – Daniel Wackett]
A: Welcome to Episode Two where we will remain on land and be covering the 1972 Uruguayan flight disaster.
[Intro music continues]
A: Would you like to hear about the Fairchild Uruguayan flight disaster?
C: I would love nothing more. I know nothing about this, because I didn’t read up on it.
A: You also didn’t know where Uruguay was when we talked about it a little earlier.
C: Or how to say Uruguay.
A: [Laughs.] The Uruguay flight disaster. So before I get started on the story properly, what I need to say is that pretty much every opinion that I have over the course of this podcast is going to be coloured or influenced in some way by the fact that I researched this disaster not only in depth, but also because I covered it first. It’s such an incredibly human story, but it’s one that we have the privilege of knowing almost completely – we have interviews, we have books, we have documentaries, we have photographs, we have footage. It took place in the 1970s, it’s by far the most recent story that we’re going to cover and for me the actions, the behaviours and the intensity of what happened is not only real – but it means that it’s this story that I’m going to be looking through the lens of everything else. It puts everything into a lot of context.
Before I get on to the events of 1972. I’m going to start with two quotes from the survivors. Not only context, but their own words.
The first comes from Nando, who will be covered later on. He states that: “Our story is described as cannibalism”, he thinks that’s wrong, cannibalism is when you kill to eat, in their case he thinks the terminology that should be used is ‘anthropophagy’, the eating of human flesh. And it’s “just terminology”. That’s the direct quote. And from the title of this podcast we’re going to be using the phrase ‘cannibalism’ and ‘survival cannibalism’ but, I think we are doing it in the same spirit as when Nando talks about the terminology. We’re deliberately reintroducing that it is a matter of terminology and trying to sort of take the moral weight away from when we’re saying ‘cannibalism is bad and evil’; it’s just the act of eating human flesh to survive.
C: I’d question the idea of using anthropophagy because it is eating human flesh, but it’s not just a human eating human flesh. If a… dog ate human flesh it would be anth- Oh, I don’t know anthropophagising? Is there a verb for it?
A: If there is I’m definitely not going to try and say it. It took many takes to get that sentence out. I wanted to acknowledge it, but we are going to be using the term ‘cannibalism’ throughout this podcast. But the second quote to lead us into the story is from Zerbino, who was one of the medical students flying as part of the rugby team. Who said, that after the crash and the decision that was made to survive on their dead companions that: “I know that if my dead body could help you to stay alive, then I’d certainly want you to use it. In fact, if I do die and you don’t eat me, then I’ll come back from wherever I am and give you a good kick in the ass.”
This is what I’m saying with this story is so human, we don’t tend to get these accounts when we’re looking at cases from the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth centuries. We have interviews, we know how people felt. I just think this is a very powerful story, even if this wasn’t a podcast about survival cannibalism I think it’s a very worthy story to know.
So, with the introduction. It is Friday the 13th.
C: Oh, of course it is.
A: Yeah. It’s October, 1972 and 45 people (which is 40 passengers, mostly made up of the Old Christians rugby club from Uruguay, with some friends and family, a few strangers filling up seats) are on the military commissioned plane and there are 5 members of the crew. They’re flying in Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571. The type of plane, which was a Fairchild, had a history of tragedy with 23 of the 48 planes in service having been involved in some kind of crash or accident-
C: Oh my god.
A: Before we even start there’s a total fatality rate on the Fairchild of 393.
C: Why are they still flying with these planes?
A: They’re not for much longer.
A: The flight is taking place, they’ve had a short waylay but they’re back in the air and they’re making their way over the Andes. They’re crossing from Uruguay to Chile to play rugby – and, at half past three the co-pilot, under the mistaken belief that they had made it past the town of Curicó, turned north. If they’d made it past Curicó, they would have been over the Andes.
C: Okay, right, so my geography as we said earlier is not so great, in that I didn’t know Uruguay was in South America. Which part of South America are we in Alix?
A: So, the Andes run north-south.
C: Okay, cool, cool.
A: Uruguay is on the east. Chile is on the west.
A: Curicó is past the halfway point between the Andes.
C: I see, I see.
A: So if they’d passed Curicó they would be on the right side.
A: The co-pilot believes they have passed Curicó. He is insistent on this.
A: But they haven’t. They turn north. And this leads the Fairchild into a proper disaster heading, straight into the Andes. Abortive measures are taken to try and save the plane, but to absolutely no avail.
C: Yeah I think maybe when they got on the plane that was already-
A: The fault of the crash is laid at the hands of the pilots and human error in totality. There are various problems when it comes to flying over mountain ranges. These are acknowledged, but the pilots were incorrect in where they thought they were. The Fairchild strikes a mountain. The loss of the right wing in turn leads to the loss of the tail, which then leads to the loss of the left wing. Five people, so two crew men and three of the boys who are still strapped in their seats are lost when the tail of the Fairchild is lost. And obviously without wings or tail-
C: Yeah that’s most of the plane gone.
A: That’s most of the steering bit of the plane. Luckily (if you can say luckily) for the survivors, the fuselage remarkably remains intact. So, the Fairchild falls out the sky and toboggans down a ravine, they travelled at nearly 200 knots. It’s incredible that anyone survived that crash, especially because they landed on snow, if they’d have landed directly in mountain-
A: There would have been nothing.
A: The survival of the fuselage would be the salvation for all of those who would survive in the Andes.
A: After the crash, some of the boys managed to pull themselves out of the wreckage, others were trapped and needed assistance, yet more were unconscious or suffering – the only medical aid that they had was the fact that a few of the boys were medical students.
C: Oh wow.
A: I’ll get on to what was in the first aid kit later on, it’s not a pretty sight.
It’s here in the story that we first come across Nando, who I quoted at the beginning. Now, he is Fernando Seler Parrado, but for ease of telling the story he’s going to be be Nando, which was his nickname. Now, I have a small aside to make here, and this is about research. Because the main literature that I using for this story was Alive: There Was Only One Way To Survive by Piers Paul Read. He was approved by the survivors to tell their story; it’s a harrowing, wonderful and heart wrenching read all at the same time, feels a bit like a Goodreads report here – but he certainly does not want to make it easy for you following who’s who. In one paragraph he will refer to the same person by their first name, their surname and their nickname multiple times.
C: It’s like reading War and Peace.
A: Pretty much. So, I’m going to just stick to giving people the one name.
C: Thank you.
A: Because this is by no means the story with the most number of people but for ease of storytelling we’ll go one name at a time.
So, Nando. Nando had been flying with his mother and his sister. His mother died during the crash and his sister was fatally wounded – Nando was considered so close to death that he was left with the other wounded.
C: Aww, poor Nando.
A: This would actually be the move that would save his life.
A: And, if you look at it from the perspective of the Fairchild, this is perhaps what saved everyone. Because in being left with the dead, or at least, with the severely wounded the cold – there’s a very technical medical explanation of this – but the cold treatment basically is what was able to save his brain. Because he was allowed to heal from his not-quite-medically-induced coma and he will be back in the action.
A: A little later on.
A: Science. Those who have survived the crash have pretty much no knowledge of the Andes, and no experience of how to survive. Logically they theorised that not only would the loss of the plane be known about and reported but that the radio in the cabin would give them a link to the outside world. They made their way to the cabin and they discovered that the captain had died, but that the co-pilot who had been flying the plane was still alive.
C: Now, was the co-pilot the one who got the location wrong?
C: Embarrassing for him.
A: Ye-yea-yeah it doesn’t go well for him. He’s barely alive. He’s trapped by the plane instruments. The boys can’t free him. He asks for water, which they provide by providing him some snow.
A: I mean, they’re in the Andes.
C: Yeah, it’s not gonna be great for his core body temperature though.
A: It’s not great for him. He repeats the belief that they’ve passed Curicó – and then asks the boys for his revolver. And they refuse. There are 32 survivors of the original 45 on that first night on the mountains. Now, the complete desolation of the Andes really can’t be understated – some of the mountains are so remote, they’re not even named. And the boys don’t know where they are because they believe they’ve passed Curicó. Because that’s what they’ve been told.
Five more died during the night, and in the morning a stock is taken. The medicine on the Fairchild is aspirin, alka seltzer, Librium and Valium and the only sustenance that they had, so all of the food provided by the Fairchild: three bottles of wine, a bottle of whiskey, a bottle of cherry brandy, a half-empty hip flask of wine, eight bars of chocolate, five bars of nougat, some caramels, some dates, some dried plums, a packet of salt biscuits, two tins of mussels, one tin of salted almonds, and three jars of jam – peach, apple and blackberry.
C: I mean, it sounds like you’ve got the ingredients for a good party but other than that… Yeah.
A: Yeah. There’s only enough food to meet the calorific intake for perhaps ten adults for 24 hours.
C: That maths isn’t going to work out so well.
A: No. Even with rationing, it’s not gonna work.
C: Especially when the rations that they’re consuming is mostly just alchohol.
A: They’d have a fun time, but… Yeah.
A: The one thing they don’t have to worry about is water. This is solved on the third day. Because there’s a water making slash melting device which is made out of parts of the chairs from the plane. Adolfo Strauch, one of the three Strauch cousins who would survive and become key players in the drama on the mountains is the man who – I say man, these are young adults. For the most part I’m calling them boys, it’s very worth remembering that. He’s the boy who comes up with the water melting device.
C: How old are the boys Alix? By the way.
A: So, they’re between their late teens and early twenties. There is some disparity, some of the fellow passengers are slightly older, especially those who aren’t connected to the families and of course the siblings and the parents who are flying. But they’re young. Like, Nando is 22.
It’s on this third day as well, that Nando recovers from his coma. He regains consciousness and becomes devoted to his sister’s survival. His sister will die on the seventh day.
There are different accounts – from various first-hand sources – quite when the idea of eating the dead was first raised. Some say on the fourth day, others the seventh, others the tenth. When the topic was raised in conversation by Nando, saying that to get off the mountain he would, quote, “Cut meat from one of the pilots. After all they got us into this mess.”
C: That’s valid. I, yeah. I agree with that, sure.
A: A rather pragmatic approach was taken, saying that it might in fact “be the only way to survive.”
By the tenth day starvation had set in, and there are now twenty-seven survivors. They knew that there was only one option – to quote directly from one of the survivors: “You know that you have to eat, the chocolates are gone and if you want to survive, and the survival instinct is probably the strongest instinct in any human being – it brings you to a different state of mind.”
Here it is worth referencing the importance of faith and religion to the survivors – they pray the rosary together every evening (their rugby club was the Old Christians rugby club), and when they prayed the rosary it was partly prayer, partly ritual, and partly bonding – but their Catholic faith would tie in very deeply to those who would eat from the bodies of the dead. To quote, “it is meat, that’s all. The souls have left their bodies and are in heaven.”
It was also argued that if God had intended for there to be no survivors everyone would have died in the crash and it would be wrong to reject the gift of life. And here, during this meeting of the 27 survivors – and it was a meeting, they sat down and discussed between all of them. We get very used to survival cannibalism being something done shiftily in the dark of night and the decision being made by more morally dubious members of various parties. These are boys who were trying to survive, and they were doing so very open and honestly.
C: I think that in terms of just the case that we discussed before, the Donner Party and in the ones that are coming up, we do see people having these kind of meetings and discussions. Maybe it’s because people don’t want to believe that a group of rational people can sit around and conclude that the best method to go forward is to eat a body, that’s maybe why.
C: We’re used to imagining it as a shifty thing.
A: Because that’s certainly, from the research we’ve done, not how it comes about. It comes about due to a combination of desperation but also logic. During this meeting, this is when Zerbino said the quote that I started with. But even those who were reluctant to eat dead bodies themselves made a pact that if they were to die their bodies were to be used as food.
C: That’s nice.
A: And all of the 27 said this, or at least there’s been no evidence I’ve been able to find that anyone objected. So, I don’t know, I just… I think this story’s really important.
The decision had been made. And five boys made their way into the snow and Canessa cut twenty slivers of meat. They were said to be as thin as match sticks. They were placed on the roof of the Fairchild. Not all of the survivors ate that day, not Liliana Methol, who was the only female survivor, but many did – and there was seemingly no judgement made by those who didn’t eat by those who did. In fact, one of the boys wrote a letter to his girlfriend about the act of eating the dead, and he wrote that “if the day came and I could save someone with my body, I would gladly do it.”
A: There was no beating about the bush about what was happening and he fully intended that letter to be read by his girlfriend.
C: Presumably in writing it though he would assume that his girlfriend would understand as well. So it’s not just a case of the other survivors understanding, it’s a case of they seem to believe and be sure that the world at large would also understand.
A: On the eleventh day the survivors were able to work the radio but not the transmitter.
A: I’m afraid I’m going to make that worse. Because in being able to work the radio, they hear world that there had been a rescue operation that had just been called off.
C: Oh that’s very very depressing.
A: So they were going to have to rescue themselves. The survivors continued to eat. Some who had been reluctant the day before were persuaded due to religious analogy of Holy Communion. “When Christ died he gave his body to us so that we could have spiritual life. My friend has given us his body so that we can have physical life.” In some instances meat was cooked, but this caused proteins to die off and the meat to shrink in size. In any case, firewood was limited, and the meat was rarely cooked – although it was more palatable to survivors when it was.
It could almost be said by this point, that the worst had passed. And the boys started making ventures to find some hope. The boys had sustenance to traverse the mountainside; the tail of the plane could be found or at least could be searched for; there could perhaps even be other survivors living in the tail. There could be more supplies and they knew that the batteries were kept in the tail – these could perhaps be used to work the transmitter.
C: And if nothing else I guess there’s gonna be a supply of more bodies in the tail.
A: Yes. It’s hopeful, there does seem to be something to work towards here. On these first of these proper voyages from the wreck site, more bodies are found. And Zerbino collected their wallets, their identity cards and their medals – keeping a record of the lost dead safe in a suitcase.
C: I was gonna say, I assume that’s an identification thing rather than hoarding.
A: Yeah, no, no. The respect and care that the memory and the honour that the dead were held in, it’s remarkable. It’s so human to see Zerbino collecting identity cards and he even collects money so that they can be returned to their families.
C: Oh, that is very sweet.
A: Unfortunately tragedy is going to strike again.
C: More, more than your plane crashing?
A: Oh yes. On the seventeenth night there’s an avalanche.
C: Oh my god.
A: It engulfs the Fairchild, it pushes past the defences of suitcases that the boys had built up, because of course half the fuselage is open and ripped away, and it buries everyone in the plane alive.
C: Oh it’s just not getting any better for them, huh?
A: It gets worse. Because there are desperate attempts by those who survive to uncover their friends and companions – but the act of uncovering one person in the cramped space leads to more people being piled in snow. Eight people die during the avalanche, including the last member of the crew and Liliana, who’d been the only female survivor. From 27 down to 19. They were trapped in the Fairchild for three days, with the submerged fuselage offering protection to the 19 survivors from the blizzards and storms and danger of the mountain. It was later said that perhaps the avalanche saved the lives of those who remained.
C: Oh, as extra insulation?
A: Extra insulation, they were defended from the appalling weather and it also meant that there was a further supply of food.
C: That’s dark but true.
A: For those who remained, it was again clear the only way for them to survive was to mount their own expedition and walk to Chile. Now, the boys believed that they had passed Curicó. This meant that they were pretty much out of the Andes.
A: That over the next mountain would be Chile. This is of course not the case. Expeditionaries needed to be chosen, and these boys would receive larger portions of meat, the best places to sleep – the driest and warmest place of the Fairchild, they’d be excused from daily chores so they’d have the strength needed to walk to freedom. Four expeditionaries, including Nando, are chosen. In order to maintain the sort of checks and balances within this group, there also emerged an unofficial ‘government’, which was the Strauch cousins – who were not only respected by the other survivors for their manner, and their realism and their quiet leadership – but they also took the unpleasant responsibility when it came to cutting the meat.
For the most part the boys were following in the ‘tradition’ of survival cannibalism. They ate what could not be immediately recognised as human, the lungs, skin, head and genitals were thrown aside. But circumstance led to consuming almost the total sum of those left behind.
So the first test for the expeditionaries comes about a month after the crash, on the 15th of November, when three of the expeditionaries – including Canessa and Nando – filled their knapsacks and walked north-east. They were hoping to find Chile but had to skirt their way through the valley first.
C: Okay. Is their geography better than mine then?
A: Chile is to the west but cause of where the Fairchild has landed in the valley, they have to get out of the valley first.
C: Right, okay, okay. I get you.
A: The one fact that is (quote-unquote) ‘known’ throughout this whole story is Chile is to the west. They hoped to find Chile; they actually found the tail of the Fairchild. They found suitcases with fresh clothes, they found a skiing kit, chocolates, sugar and meat pasties. They also found cigarettes, which were badly needed as only three of the 18 survivors were non-smokers.
C: That’s got to be your top priority.
A: One of the boys had actually started smoking after the crash. I can understand in that situation.
C: Stressful circumstances. I guess you’re not too worried about your life expectancy.
A: It’s 1972.
C: Ahh, I don’t know the history of… Smoking science.
A: I don’t think they cared that much in 1972. And certainly, up in the Andes, fair. Fair play to them. So they got their cigarettes. They also found the batteries for the transmitter – but they weren’t able to carry them – so instead they made the decision to return to the tail with the radio. Returning to the tail would ultimately be futile, as the batteries weren’t compatible.
A: Yeah. Now, the boys weren’t to know that. And during this expedition a camera was found and the decision was made to take photographs on the off-chance that the camera would be discovered if the worst happened and it would be known that (quote) “people lived here”. It’s worth noting that these photographs still exist and these photographs don’t pack any punches as to what was happening at the Fairchild.
C: That’s a good idea though to document it in case. It’s a bit more durable maybe, than leaving a paper note?
A: The boys had tried to write on the roof of the Fairchild in I believe nail varnish an SOS.
A: But once the expeditionaries certainly got far enough away they saw that the white fuselage and the snow just couldn’t be seen. It was why none of the rescue missions actually found the plane. Even though the initial rescue attempt was searching where the Fairchild was lost.
C: Oh no. It’s just a series of bad luck and bad decisions perhaps from pilots and rescuers.
A: I’m going to say for the rescuers it was impossible to find the Fairchild, especially because the pilots’ mistake had been transmitted.
C: So they thought the plane was in a different location as well.
A: Yup. They knew that, ‘wait a sec, he said that he made that voyage that takes eleven minutes in three minutes’, but that’s all they had to go on.
For the first time supply of food was actually running low, it wasn’t that there were no bodies to eat, but that they had been lost by the avalanche. So the survivors in turn turned to eating the parts of corpses that had previously been rejected, even splitting skulls which would be used as bowls. There were also bodies that had been deemed protected – such as Liliana Methol, the fourth Strauch cousin who was later found, and Nando’s mother and sister. There were in fact five bodies that were seen as being the last resort and this was agreed by all of the survivors.
C: Is this because they were relatives?
A: I do have a note saying ‘gastronomic incest’ here. In some cases, it does seem to be relatives. It’s worth noting that Liliana being by the end the only female survivor, her husband survives, it was out of deference to him that it was agreed not to eat Liliana. And that’s similar with Nando’s mother and sister as well.
A: A number of the boys had their birthdays during their time in the Fairchild, and those events were celebrated with gifts – a tot of rum, an extra packet of cigarettes, a cigar – I know I keep saying it, but the humanity of what happened just keeps getting to me.
C: No, it’s very touching I agree.
A: On the 12th of December, nearly two months after the plane crash, and with the survivors now only numbering 16, the expeditionaries set off on what would be the ultimate test of survival. The walk to Chile, believed to be just over the mountain range – although of course, they were in the middle of the Andes, not at the edge. The lives of all of those left at the Fairchild was on their shoulders.
Before setting off, Nando took the Strauch cousins to one side and he told them that they had his permission to use the bodies of his mother and sister for sustenance. And a direct quote here says that, “That was such a great act because he didn’t have to give us that authorisation, but he did.”
C: So, the expeditionaries, are they taking any meat with them?
A: They are filling their knapsacks, I believe they have eight days- It’s either eight or ten days’ worth of food. They’ve had a sleeping bag made, all of the efforts have gone into sustaining the expeditionaries. Everyone knows that they’re the final hope. For example Zebino, one of the medical students, had been talking about the importance of liver for nutrients, so expeditionaries got extra rations of liver.
C: They seem like a very resourceful bunch in terms of making a water melting device and sleeping bags. I’m not sure I’d know where to start.
A: They definitely took the initiative. It was a case of ‘we need to survive, so this is how’. For example, where it comes to the radio and the transmitter, one of the boys had previously made a radio, just at home for fun. He was put in charge of running the radio, and he did not think that he was up to the task, but he had to fulfil that obligation because they needed it to survive.
C: I mean that sounds pretty qualified. Like if you’ve built a radio.
A: Circumstances are a bit different.
A: So the three expeditionaries set off. Nando, Canessa and Vizintin, although not before Nando left a red shoe – which was one of a pair for his nephew that he had bought as a gift – he left it hanging from the hat rack of the Fairchild, and he gave his word that he would return to collect it.
Now, from this moment on, there are two stories. There are the boys at the Fairchild, and the three expeditionaries. At first those at the fuselage could see the expeditionaries climbing, but they soon became lost in the mountainside. The expeditionaries climbed over 2,000 feet at a 45 degree angle.
A: It took them three days to climb a single mountain. Along the way, Canessa believed that he’d seen a road from the east – but the mantra that had kept the boys going for all of this time was that Chile was to the west. So, they continued to the summit. In fact, not only was there a road, but only five miles to the east of the Fairchild, there was a hotel.
C: Oh no.
A: While the hotel was empty for the winter months, it was stocked with tinned food.
C: Oh that’s just so– Speechless.
A: Yeah. The boys had absolutely no way of knowing this. It was Nando who mounted the summit first; it was Nando who named the mountain – he called it Mount Seler after his father, he wrote this on a plastic bag in lipstick I believe and he left it under a stone. The boys had been using lipstick and various leftovers of the women’s makeup to protect themselves from the sun.
It was also Nando who was the first man to see that they weren’t at the edge of the Andes, that there were no green valleys in sight, that instead the mountain range continued. They were completely surrounded by snow-capped peaks – apart, from directly to the west, there were two mountains without snow. That was now their only hope. They had to keep heading west.
“There’s no way we can go back, we’ll die, but we’ll die trying.” “Let’s die together” was the decision made by the expeditionaries. But only Nando and Canessa continued west; Vizintin returned to the Fairchild, leaving his additional supplies.
C: Is he too tired to go on or he wants to let them know what’s happened?
A: It was decided by Nando and Canessa that they worked better as a team and that the two of them could get further together using Vizintin’s supplies than the three of them would, and Vizintin very quickly agreed to go back to the Fairchild. And did so very quickly using one of the seats from the Fairchild as a toboggan and went flying down the mountain.
C: Oh, that’s fun.
A: Those at the Fairchild were faced with their own dilemmas. The continuing shortage of food and the very real possibility that if the first expedition failed they’d have to send out a second – less prepared and without the advantages of the first. The return of Vizintin led to both anguish and tentative hope, especially accompanied by the growing thaw, because the melt started to reveal more bodies.
A: Especially because these were the bodies of those who’d been killed in the earliest days of the disaster, leading them to have “more and better meat” because they hadn’t suffered from starvation.
C: Of course, they’d have more fat deposits.
A: Despite those of the Fairchild falling into a comfortable routine, the continuing belief that the expedition may had been a failure continued to hang over their heads and by the 20th of December, all 14 survivors at the Fairchild believed that they were going to be spending Christmas in the Andes. It was an almost overwhelming blow. However, Nando and Canessa had continued west. They trekked nearly 40 miles of the Andes – it was actually 37 but in their own words, these were very long miles.
C: Up and down mountains in the snow, yeah that’s gonna take quite a while.
A: It’s not nothing. Especially because even accomplished mountaineers have marvelled at what they achieved. No training, no skills, no knowledge, no equipment-
C: No food.
A: No food. Well they had quite a bit of food by this point.
C: No non-human food.
A: No non-human food. And yet they survived. As they said themselves, “the only reason you go forward is because you can’t go back” and it was a near continuous effort just to keep moving. Although they rested, they never built a shelter, and while they had supplies Nando, lost 60 pounds, and Canessa lost 40. However, their incredible journey would not be in vain, as after ten days of walking they heard running water. The snow stopped, the valley opened up, and for the first time in months they saw flowers.
A: They also found evidence of civilisation, there was an empty soup tin and cow dung, which was enough to alert the boys that there were people around.
C: There are cows!
A: There are cows. There were conversations about trapping a cow and then Nando and Canessa were like ‘that’s not overly going to endear us if we kill one of their cows.’
C: How do you trap a cow? To catch a cow you have to think like a cow.
A: I think they were going to jump out of a tree? I’m not sure. It wasn’t the most solid plan. As they said themselves, they had water, they had grass to eat. “What simple things we need to be happy.” However, now they were out of the coldest part of the mountains, their food supply was starting to rot.
A: On their ninth day of walking, Nando and Canessa see three Chilean Rangers across the river. Nando sunk to his knees in supplication and they were just about able to communicate over the river that the men would return the next day. On their tenth day, the Rangers threw a means of communication to the boys – they threw them a sheet of paper which was launched over the river by being tied around a stone.
For the first time in months, the survivors of Flight 571 could be heard. And this is what Nando wrote: “I come from a plane that fell in the mountains. I am Uruguayan. We have been walking for 10 days. I have a friend up there that is injured. In the plane there are still 14 injured people. We have to get out of here quickly and we do not know how. We don’t have any food. We are weak. When are you going to come and fetch us? Please. We can’t even walk. Where are we?”
They were thrown bread and cheese across the river, the first substantive food (other than human flesh) that they had eaten in months. And the two boys buried what remained of their original rations.
C: I have to say that just for the Rangers that’s a… That’s a hard-hitting message to receive.
A: Yes, especially because the rescue mission had been abandoned, it was known that the plane was lost in the Andes, but when news first broke people thought it might be a hoax.
C: Oh wow.
A: Not for very long, but especially the boys’ families who had been leading these rescue missions and trying to find out news and information, and then suddenly there’s this very neatly-written letter and it was a bit like ‘huh, okay?’
C: I guess they don’t want to get their hopes up as well.
A: Oh, yeah, it gets a little – obviously with there being survivors, that means that there are those who didn’t make it.
Thursday the 21st of December, 70 days after the Fairchild had crashed in the Andes, the rescue could truly said to have begun. Even before Nando and Canessa had made it off the mountain, before the others had been rescued, there were international journalists in the Andes asking questions. It’s absolutely incredible, in the true sense of the word incredulous to think about it, before the survival of all had been assured, Nando and Canessa were being questioned. “How would you all survive? What did you eat?” Canessa started responding to that by saying “Well that topic…” and Nando interrupted with, “We’re not going to answer that.”
C: I don’t want to say that journalists are going to emerge as a villain throughout these pieces but, eh you see that journalism is…
A: Yeah, I’ve got a few pages coming up you might want to change your mind on that.
A: [Sighs.] Yeah. A patrol, and most importantly helicopters arrived to rescue those left in the Fairchild. And Nando, despite his understandable reservations about flying, volunteered to show the pilots the route to the Fairchild – remembering perhaps the red shoe that he had promised to return for. The journey was harrowing, with the helicopters being pushed almost beyond their limits, but there was incredible hope. Not just for Nando and Canessa, but at the wreck of the Fairchild as well.
Because the remaining 14 had heard on the radio that two men from Flight 571 had emerged from the Andes. “To hear these names was the end of our story. The end of our fight. The beginning of our freedom.” They knew that they too soon would be rescued, although there were some concerns raised about the wreckage, the bodies and the evidence of survival surrounding the plane, in case perhaps there were photographers with their rescue. The boys themselves said “There is no need to hide what we’ve done”.
The rescue was successful – with half of the boys being collected that day, and the remaining being picked up the next morning. Among those collected the next day was Zerbino who bought his suitcase of documents of the dead, and Nando’s red shoe.
C: Awww. Good.
A: Incredibly, while all of the boys were suffering in one way or another from undernourishment and vitamin deficiency, none of them were in a critical condition.
C: That is impressive. I guess they started eating the bodies relatively early, as compared to some of the survival situations we’re going to see.
C: Which is, I think, sensible. I think that’s a takeaway from this.
A: They did have the advantage, for the most point, they were fit young men; they were the rugby team. Not all of them served in the rugby team but they did have provisions of fat and muscle and strength that, not to put it mildly, they could allow to waste away before they themselves started suffering.
A: The survivors were taken to hospital in San Fernando, Chile and it was here, after many months that they were reunited with their families. But it was also here that how they survived first became known, first to their doctors, who realised that they’d eaten something more than snow and chocolate, and then to their families. Before their families came the Church, and a priest was brought to speak to the boys and many of them found absolution for their actions in him. Since it was the teaching of the Catholic Church that anthropophagy in extremis is permissible, this young priest was able to not so much forgive them as to tell them that they had done nothing wrong.
C: When did that come up as a teaching, how long’s that been about? I’m just interested that they’ve needed to create a rule around that because of how frequent it’s been in the past.
A: It’s one of the really strange things that pops up around the Catholic Church and cannibalism. Monsignor Andrés Rubio, who is the Auxiliary Bishop of Montevideo, said “eating someone who has died in order to survive is incorporating their substance and it is quite possible to compare this with a graft, flesh survives when it is assimilated by someone in extreme need just as it does when an eye or a heart of a dead man is grafted onto a living man, what would we have done in a similar situation?”
You then have the Archbishop of Montevideo stating that “morally I see no objection it was a question of survival, you have religious philosophers who state that he who has received from the community also has the duty to give to the community or to individual members at times of extreme need.”
C: Sorry does that definitely mean a body though?
A: “Considering these facts”, Father Concetti went on, “we justify on an ethical basis the fact that the survivors of the crash of the Uruguayan airplane fed themselves with the only food available to avoid a sure death. It is legitimate to resort to lifeless human bodies in order to survive.”
C: Okay, I guess, yeah.
A: Catholic Church, on board with survival cannibalism.
C: Good to know!
A: The boys soon faced however, the court of popular opinion, as shortly after Christmas, newspapers started to report publicly on the nature of survival. The photographs that had been taken by their rescuers, had been sold. Yeah I thought you’d want to respond to that.
C: Hmmm. Yes. Well. It makes a sensationalist story doesn’t it?
A: Graphic images accompanied headlines such as ‘Survivors Say Nothing… Evidence of Cannibalism Found at Plane Crash Site’; ‘Cannibalism To Survive’; ‘Uruguayan Survivors Ate Human Flesh’ and ‘May God Forgive Them’.
C: So we go on a lot about clickbait articles and titles in the current media world but even in print journalism I think that ‘May God Forgive Them’ is pretty clickbait-y.
A: Yeah, it’s a little… dramatic. Especially knowing what we do about the opinion of the Catholic Church when it comes to survival cannibalism. What’s also worth noting is while these newspaper headlines were international, they weren’t in Uruguay. In Uruguay it seemed like the media were waiting for the boys to return before telling their story.
C: Do you think that’s out of respect for the boys, wanting to let them tell their own story, or is it like a, ‘we’re ashamed this happened to our rugby team’?
A: It seems to be that they were waiting. Because the boys had to address what had happened and they decided to do this through a news conference at their old school. At this news conference, Pancho Delgado spoke on behalf of the survivors when it came to the cannibalism.
He stated, “And when the moment came when we did not have any more food or anything of that kind, we thought to ourselves that if Jesus at his Last Supper had shared His flesh and His blood with His apostles, then it was a sign to us that we should do the same – take the flesh and blood as an intimate communion between us all. It was this that helped us to survive, and now we do not want this – which for us was something intimate, to be hackneyed or touched or anything like that.”
There are later reports that say the importance given to Holy Communion and its metaphysical relation to cannibalism were overstated in a way to make these stories more palatable, but that does remain the official line said by the survivors to this day.
Of the 45 people who had flown in the Fairchild, there were only 16 survivors. And for 29 families there was not only sorrow, but the knowledge that for some the bodies of the dead had been used to sustain the living. There were some incredible statements made from the families of those who died, including Dr Valeta who stated that “we are glad, what is more, that there were forty-five of them, because this helped at least sixteen to return.”
To this day, the survivors still meet up every year on the anniversary of the rescue. Because this happened in living memory, it’s why I’ve said so many times this story’s important. It sounds daft to say this really happened. I’ve spoken to people at work who remember this happening.
C: It’s much more proximate than the other ones.
C: It’s closer to us.
A: And yes, I think it’s important to end on the fact that there are still survivors of the Uruguayan crash today.
[Outro music – Daniel Wackett]
C: Thank you for listening to this episode; a tale of remarkable survival.
A: Next time you’ll be able to hear about Jamestown and Leningrad, a two-part episode on settlement and siege.
[Outro music continues]
A: Casting Lots Podcast can be found on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr as @CastingLotsPod, and on Facebook as Casting Lots Podcast.
C: If you enjoyed this episode and want to hear more, don’t forget to subscribe to us on iTunes, Google Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts, and please rate, review and share to bring more people to the table.
A: Casting Lots: A Survival Cannibalism Podcast, is researched, written and recorded by Alix and Carmella, with post-production and editing also by Carmella and Alix. Art and logo design by Riley – @Tallestfriend on Twitter and Instagram – with audio and music by Daniel Wackett – Daniel Wackett on SoundCloud and @ds_wack on Twitter. Casting Lots is part of the Morbid Audio Podcast Network – search #MorbidAudio on Twitter – and the network’s music is provided by Mikaela Moody – mikaelamoody1 on Bandcamp.
[Morbid Audio Sting – Mikaela Moody]