A story of survival – surviving 72 days in the snowy mountains after a plane crash by resorting to cannibalism
In 1972 a small plane crashed in the Andes mountains of Argentina carrying a rugby team and their friends and family due to an inexperienced co-pilot. Out of the 45 passengers and crew aboard, 8 died instantly from the crash and many more soon after from their injuries or the cold temperatures. At 11,710 ft they were pretty high up there in the mountains.
They were finally rescued when the weather cleared up and two survivors climbed a 15,260 ft mountain peak for 10 days without gear and traveled 38 miles until they found help. They then were able to send a rescue crew to the crash site and 16 other survivors were rescued. Their amazing story went on to produce multiple books, movies, and songs.
Lessons I learned from reading about this story:
Search and rescue flew over the crash multiple times but couldn’t see the white plane against the white snow. The survivors did try and write SOS with lipstick they found in luggage among the wreckage but they ran out of it. A lesson to create as much contrast as possible.
Two first year medical students were on board and attended to people’s wounds.
A man named Enrique Platero had a piece of metal stuck in his abdomen. When it was removed it brought out a couple inches of intestine with it. He was actually recovering well though he later died in an avalanche.
None of the passengers with compound fractures survived.
The surviving passengers used broken seats, debris, luggage, and snow to make a wall and shut out the cold inside a portion of the broken fuselage.
They were able to obtain water in freezing conditions by using a piece of sheet metal that was under the seats and placing it out in the snow. They would sprinkle some snow on top and the solar radiation would heat up the metal enough to melt the snow.
They made improvised sunglasses out of sun visors from the pilot’s cabin, wire, and a bra strap to prevent snow blindness.
The seats were gutted to make clothing to protect against the cold and improvise as snow shoes.
The captain of the rugby team on board assumed leadership. A lesson to find a leader to direct people.
All of the of the remaining survivors had never seen snow before and had always lived by the sea. So they were not used to this high elevation and cold temperatures.
Temperatures dropped to -30C / -22F at night.
They found a small radio in the wreckage and improvised a long antenna using electrical cable from the plane. They heard the disheartening news that their search and rescue was called off after the 11th day. That would have been horrible for moral but would give valuable intel to not just stay put and you have to do something about your rescue.
There was very little food on the plane that only lasted a week after extreme rationing. No natural vegetation or animals lived at that altitude either. They tried eating the cotton insides the seats and leather but got sick from eating those.
Those still alive knew that search and rescue had been called off and that they would eventually die from starvation. They all agreed that the others could consume their bodies if they died. This was a very hard decision as they would be consuming the bodies of their dead relatives, and close friends.
Survivor Roberto Canessa described the decision to eat the pilots and their dead friends and family members:
Our common goal was to survive — but what we lacked was food. We had long since run out of the meagre pickings we’d found on the plane, and there was no vegetation or animal life to be found. After just a few days, we were feeling the sensation of our own bodies consuming themselves just to remain alive. Before long, we would become too weak to recover from starvation.
We knew the answer, but it was too terrible to contemplate.
The bodies of our friends and team-mates, preserved outside in the snow and ice, contained vital, life-giving protein that could help us survive. But could we do it?
For a long time, we agonized. I went out in the snow and prayed to God for guidance. Without His consent, I felt I would be violating the memory of my friends; that I would be stealing their souls.
We wondered whether we were going mad even to contemplate such a thing. Had we turned into brute savages? Or was this the only sane thing to do? Truly, we were pushing the limits of our fear.
Still, some refused or could not keep down the human meat. They dried the meat in the sun and it made it more palatable. They initially were so revolted by the experience that they only could eat skin, muscle, and fat, but as the supply diminished they resulted in eating heart, lungs, and brains.
17 days after the crash, an avalanche struck the aircraft while they slept killing eight more people including the team captain who had been the leader. This was even more discouraging for them. They were buried inside the aircraft under 3 feet of snow and used a metal pole from the luggage rack to poke out a ventilation hole once air was running out. They dug out the next morning to find themselves in a horrible blizzard and decided that they had to go back down into the buried plane for shelter.
They tried to get the plane’s radio working to signal for help but with the voltage differences it didn’t work out.
They realized that they needed to climb the peak to find help and improvised a sleeping bag out of insulation, copper wire, and waterproof fabric from the air conditioning. One man had been taught to sew as a child and used a sewing kit found in the wreckage. He taught three others how to sew and they took turns making the sleeping bag.
During the expedition to find help, they wore three pairs of jeans and three sweaters, and four pairs of socks rapped in plastic shopping bags. The thin oxygen and softened spring snow making them sink down to their hips made the trek hard.
On the summit, one member told another, “We may be walking to our deaths, but I would rather walk to meet my death than wait for it to come to me.” The one agreed. “You and I are friends. We have been through so much. Now let’s go die together.“
The two who went out for rescue came to a river and found some men on the other side of it. The river was too loud that they couldn’t yell across but one of the men wrote a note on a piece of paper, wrapped it around a rock with string and tossed it across. The two survivors then responded back on the paper and threw it back.
A rescue crew was sent out by helicopter to rescue the remaining people at the wreckage.
Upon being rescued, they didn’t want to admit to cannibalism and told people that they had just eaten some cheese and other food they found. Rumors started going about though and the survivors received public backlash for resulting to cannibalism. After they explained all they had to go through, people were more understanding and let up on them.
This was an incredible story and I’d encourage you to learn more about it. This is just a very brief summary of what stood out to me, but they had many other examples and experiences of smart thinking and good survival skills.