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On October 12, 1972, a Uruguayan army plane left Montevideo for Santiago in Chile. The plane was chartered by the “Christian Brothers,” a rugby team from Carrasco, an upmarket suburb of Montevideo, who were planning to play a friendly match in Chile and—accompanied by a few parents and friends—spend a pleasant weekend on the shores of the Pacific.
Bad weather forced the plane to land in Mendoza, a small town on the Argentinean slopes of the Andes. On October 13, the plane took off once again. At 3:30pm the pilot transmitted his position to the control tower in Santiago. But when the tower attempted to communicate with the aircraft a minute later there was no reply.
Chile, Argentina and Uruguay joined forces to search for the plane, but there had been exceptionally heavy snowfall in the mountains and since the fuselage was white there was little chance of finding the plane and even less chance that any of the 45 passengers had survived.
Then, seventy days after the crash, a Chilean shepherd, who was watching his flock in the foothills of the Andes, caught sight of the outline of two men on the other side of a torrential river. Gesticulating frantically, they fell to their knees, their arms wide open. The shepherd took them for tourists and left.
However, the next day he came back to the same spot and saw that the men were still there. The sound of the water was so loud on the banks of the river that it was impossible for the three men to hear each other so the shepherd threw a piece of paper and a pen, wrapped in a handkerchief, over the river. The two bearded men in rags wrote something on the paper and threw it back to the shepherd: “We’re from a plane that crashed on the mountains. Fourteen of our friends are still alive up there.”
They had not only survived a plane crash and three winter months in the Andes, but also an avalanche that killed 8 of their friends and trapped the rest of them in the fuselage for three days—the fuselage that up to this point had been their only shelter. Ten days after the crash they learned from a still functioning radio that the search had been abandoned and by this time their meagre food supplies had run out. They had seen their friends succumb one by one to their injuries, dying in their arms. Despite all this, they had managed to come up with devices to melt the snow to water, to protect their eyes against snow blindness and to cross the snow without sinking in.
Growing impatient with their fate they started expeditions, each time daring to go a bit further away from the safety of the camp than before, to find out what was behind the mountain range, only to find more dead bodies—and eventually the tail of the plane, in which they found batteries, some food and most importantly the material to tailor a sleeping bag. It was this sleeping bag that finally enabled them to veer farther away from the plane, as they could now also survive the freezing cold of the nights in the Andes. Picking the strongest among them, feeding them bigger rations and sparing them from the daily duties, they prepared for their last hope of rescue—sending two of their party into the unknown mountain ranges.
20-year-old Fernando “Nando” Parrado and 19-year-old Roberto Canessa walked 44 miles over the mountains, crossing summits more than 13,000 feet high, with no equipment other than rugby boots. Reports worldwide spoke of the “survivors of the century” and—maybe because they were rescued two days before Christmas—the “Miracle of the Andes.”
Shortly after their rescue, in a heated press conference, the survivors made a startling admission “… the day came when we had nothing left to eat, and we said that Christ, by offering his flesh and blood during the Last Supper, had shown us the way by indicating that we had to do likewise: take his flesh and blood, incarnated in our friends who had died in the crash... It was a personal communion for each one of us… It’s what helped us to survive…” One of our greatest taboos had been defied. And made public. The whole world was in shock.