From ‘Alive’ to ‘Society of the Snow,’ the true story behind the Andes flight disaster

A 1972 plane crash forced Uruguayan teenagers to extremes to survive the mountains. The nightmarish saga behind the multiple book and film adaptations

In 1972, a plane carrying a group of Uruguayan teenage rugby players from the Old Christians team crashed in the Andes en route to Chile to play a match. Lost and isolated in the most inhospitable conditions, the survivors had to turn to cannibalism. Seventy-two days later, they were rescued after two of them, Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa, trekked through the mountains to Chile for 10 days to find help.

Out of the original 40 passengers and 5 crew members, 16 died when the plane crashed against a mountain, severing the fuselage of the Uruguayan Air Force’s chartered Fairchild plane. The remaining 29 rationed what little food they had found in the luggage, and some of them died in the subsequent days. They found a portable radio, which gave them the worst news possible on the 10th day: search parties had stopped and the world assumed they were all dead. 

What followed was two months of unimaginable psychological trauma, debilitating diseases, freezing temperatures with no warm clothing, an avalanche that killed eight more people, starvation, and the desperate decision to use their friends’ bodies as food. The despair led to a 10-day trek through snowy peaks with no equipment other than rugby shoes and a self-made sleeping bag. 

The incredible true story of the Andes flight disaster or “The Miracle of the Andes” has been the subject of several books, and adapted to film three times. The first was the forgotten 1976 Mexican film Supervivientes de los Andes — a mostly exploitative version that focused on the gruesome aspects of the story (i.e. cannibalism). In 1993 a big-budget version of the story was released, directed by Hollywood veteran Frank Marshall. That film, starring Ethan Hawke, was adapted from the best-selling book Alive by Piers Paul Read, which gave a detailed account of the events. 

The latest film, it seems, has had the biggest global impact. J.A. Bayona’s Society of the Snow premiered in Argentine theaters on December 14 and is currently Netflix’s most-watched film worldwide, and their top film in 88 countries with almost 23 million views in one week, according to the platform. 

Spain’s bid for the Academy Awards in the Best International Picture category, Bayona’s film is based on Pablo Vierci’s book of the same title. Unlike Read’s thorough account, written only two years after the event, Vierci’s book is a series of first-person testimonies the survivors gave 50 years after the crash. 

The perspectives are as different as the film versions: while Marshall’s Alive is a survivor’s tale with Parrado and Canessa as the classic heroic duo, Bayona shifts between points of view, focusing on the experiences and feelings of the characters in that impossible white hellscape. 

Photo: Latin America News Agency via Reuters

You may also be interested in: J.A. Bayona on the Uruguayan plane crash and empathy through fiction: ‘The mountains dominated’

Search and rescue

Most films have left out the desperate search by the passengers’ families, which included relentless private flights over the mountains after the official search was halted. They were mostly conducted by renowned artist Carlos Páez Vilaró, whose son Carlitos was on the plane. From Chile, Vilaró managed to charter planes and helicopters several times, and became known as “that crazy man still looking for his dead son.” Fuel was scarce in Chile at the time due to strikes and boycotts against President Salvador Allende’s socialist government — Vilaró even ended up in jail after flying over a restricted area under suspicions of espionage.

Other parents turned to supernatural aid, seeking the help of psychics. Most notably, a Dutch man named Gérard Croiset Jr. mailed the parents a drawing and a tape describing his visions of the plane and the location where it had crashed (near a beach or a lake) — later revealed as totally inaccurate. The closest thing to a beach was the abandoned hot springs resort Termas del Sosneado, 20 kilometers away from the crash site on the Argentine side. The place could have worked as a precarious refuge if only Parrado and Canessa had gone the other way. 

Parrado and Canessa finally reached Chile on December 20, with almost no strength and no more food after a 10-day crossing of the Andes on foot. On the other side of the Barroso river, they caught sight of a local shepherd, Sergio Catalán. Catalán made a day-long horse ride to reach the authorities, who didn’t believe his tale of the two Uruguayan survivors until he showed them a letter Parrado wrote to him and threw it across the river. Catalán became the 16 survivors’ hero. They stayed in touch, visited him, and helped him pay for the surgeries and medical treatments he underwent until he died in 2020 at the age of 91. Gustavo Zerbino, one of the 16, attended his funeral on behalf of the survivors.  

It would take the Chilean military three more days to rescue the entire group. Both Marshall and Bayona’s films deliberately summarize the helicopter rescue in one single event, but it was an adventure in and of itself. 

The first helicopter landed on the crash site on December 21, taking six survivors back to their base camp. The helicopter ride to safety was all but safe. Survivors described a terrifying flight, with mountain winds and turbulence threatening a second crash.

Four members of the rescue team stayed behind — the first to witness the horrific scene of half-eaten human remains scattered around the plane. While two of them spent that night inside the fuselage alongside the survivors, the other two set up a separate tent, shocked at the site and what it meant. 

It wasn’t until December 23 that the second helicopter rescue arrived and retrieved the remaining survivors, who had made it through 72 days. Several years later, authorities managed to bury the remains of the victims and set up a grave with a huge iron cross. 

Over the years, the survivors have returned to the crash site, both together and with their children. The place, a valley near the Tinguiririca volcano and Sosneado mountain, becomes a glacier in the winter. Its name appears to have been written specifically for this harrowing true story: the Valley of the Tears. 


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