Crashed and stranded in the Andes for 72 days with no food… so would you have turned


SOCIETY OF THE SNOW 

by Pablo Vierci (Constable £25, 384pp)   

Few news stories have incited as much, and as heated, public debate as the events of 1972 that became known as the ‘Miracle of the Andes’.

The story, now sensitively told by Pablo Vierci in Society Of The Snow (and on which this week’s ­Netflix film of the same name was based) is almost too awful to conceive.

On Friday, October 13, a twin-engine Fairchild passenger plane took off from Carrasco International Airport in Montevideo in Uruguay bound for Santiago.

On board were the Old Christians Rugby Club, alumni of a local Catholic school, along with assorted family and friends. The rowdy young men’s spirits were high as they flew over the Andean peaks on their way to a match in Chile. And then they hit catastrophic turbulence.  

In a huge air pocket, the plane plummeted. Crashing into a rock face, it cracked in half. Some passengers were torn out of the aircraft, others were crushed under metal.

Life or death: Netflix drama Society Of The Snow recreates the 'Miracle of the Andes' crash

Life or death: Netflix drama Society Of The Snow recreates the ‘Miracle of the Andes’ crash

The tail shot off in one direction, while the main fuselage holding the passengers ‘landed hard on the mountain and began sliding in a zigzag down the slope,’ writes Vierci.

It came to rest — part coffin, part cocoon — on a glacier called the Valley of Tears.

‘During the crash, 16 people died and 29 remained alive,’ notes Vierci. ‘In the end, those numbers were reversed.’

That anyone came off the mountain alive was indeed a miracle, but it was one laced with horror: for 72 days the stricken passengers survived by eating the bodies of their dead friends. Ever since, people have wondered: ‘What would I have done?’

The crash and its gruesome wake have been recounted in numerous books, most notably Alive by Piers Paul Read. 

While Read shaped a story of fortitude, Vierci takes a philosophical standpoint, analysing the group dynamic and what he calls a ‘pact of mutual self-surrender’ — the passengers’ agreement to gift their bodies for sustenance should they die.

The book, originally published in Spanish in 2008 and now translated to coincide with this week’s Netflix adaptation, see-saws between chapters that chronologically follow the drama, and sections providing individual statements from survivors.

Two were to play pivotal roles in the story: Roberto Canessa, a compassionate young trainee doctor, and Nando Parrado, a resourceful 22-year-old business student. Both understood that ‘in the society of the snow the rules were completely different from those of the society of the living’.

The remaining survivors are photographed cheering at the moment of their rescue

The remaining survivors are photographed cheering at the moment of their rescue 

Several factors played in the passengers’ favour: they were young and fit, there were medical students on board, they had religious faith and strong family backgrounds. In short, they had the foundations for hope.

But their confidence faded under the grind of sub-zero temperatures holed up in the wreckage — ‘we were living inside a freezer’ — festering injuries and little sign of rescue.

Crucially, within a few days, they realised there was nothing to forage or hunt at that altitude. The only source of nourishment lay in the bodies frozen in the snow.

On the eighth day, the first slivers of meat were cut. Canessa recalls that the decision was ‘a leap into the void’, but remains no-nonsense about the cannibalism: 

‘At first we began to eat the muscles of the cadavers, later we are forced to follow with the organs, until at last we have to crack open the skulls with an axe to get to the brains.’ That would be their diet for two months.

The calamities continued. During the night of October 29, the fuselage was hit by an avalanche, killing eight and trapping others under the snow for several days. 

There were other low points: two expeditions off the glacier ended in failure, and when a radio was found in the wreckage, they heard the search parties had been called off. They were all presumed dead.

In a final bid to seek help, Canessa and Parrado trekked over the peaks for ten days to Chile. When they eventually encountered a mule driver on the opposite bank of a river, they knew they were saved. 

Survivors: Carlos Paez Rodriguez, Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa at the closing ceremony of the 80th Venice International Film Festival in September 2023

Survivors: Carlos Paez Rodriguez, Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa at the closing ceremony of the 80th Venice International Film Festival in September 2023

They threw him a message tied to a rock. It began: ‘I come from a plane that fell in the mountains.’ The rescue helicopters were soon on their way.

Vierci delivers gruesome details: a passenger operates on his own gangrenous leg; a rugby ball becomes a bed-pan; human flesh is cooked on a griddle made from the back of an aircraft seat.

Then there is the ironic fate of Tito Regules, the only boy to miss the flight. Tito had partied the night before and over slept. It saved his life. Twenty-one years later, he fell asleep at the wheel of his car and died in a crash. 

Graziela Mariani, who happily took his seat to get to her daughter’s wedding, perished on the mountain. There was a domino effect of traumas.

On their return, as the truth emerged about what they had eaten to survive, the world gagged. One newspaper published a photograph of the fuselage clearly showing a half-eaten human leg among the debris. The headline ran: ‘May God Forgive Them!’

But the survivors’ families were resolute in their support. These were not cannibals, they maintained, just sons and brothers who had done what was required to get home. By endorsing that distinction, Vierci’s book is a triumph of empathy.

Vierci also chronicles a complicated — yet inspirational — ripple effect of the disaster, one that continues to this day. Half a century on, there are some 100 children and grandchildren to those 16 young men.

And while the back-and-forth structure of the book frustrates, the approach allows for valuable first-person accounts by all the survivors, including those who have not spoken publicly before. 

A rescue worker is assisting one of the survivors. For 72 days, the passengers were stranded in the snow in the Andes

A rescue worker is assisting one of the survivors. For 72 days, the passengers were stranded in the snow in the Andes 

Some went on to become successful businessmen, architects and doctors, others struggled to get beyond their misfortune.

‘What were we? A group of unlucky young boys,’ Canessa states.

‘What are we? A group of adult men searching for a reason for the great tragedy which befell us.’

Whether the ‘society’ that Vierci describes is a product of retrospective and poetic framing, or an accurate picture of a group making collective decisions, is open to question.

What is irrefutable, however, is that he succeeds in stirring readers’ compassion and understanding for those who endured the unendurable and then got on with their lives.



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