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'We couldn't give up'

Nicolas Guzman
October 12, 2022

Roberto Canessa survived a plane crash in the Andes and was instrumental in helping save the lives of other survivors. The Uruguayan pediatric cardiologist says his only regret is getting on the plane in the first place.

Roberto Canessa
Roberto Canessa, one of the survivors of the 1972 Andes plane crashImage: Sandra Lampreia

It's literally the stuff Hollywood movies are made of, a tragedy that has been filmed several times: On October 13, 1972, an Uruguayan Air Force plane bound for Chile crashed into a mountainside in the Andes at 4,000 meters above sea level. The passengers were a rugby team on its way to a friendly match, the coaches and some relatives.

Many of the 45 onboard flight FAU 571 survived — including Roberto Canessa, a rugby player and medical student. However, the authorities couldn't find the plane and called off the search after 10 days.

Stranded above the tree line without food or warm clothes, the survivors eventually decided to eat the flesh of the deceased to save their own lives. But this was not enough and after 62 days, Canessa and another survivor decided to go for help. They trekked across the mountains for 10 days before meeting somebody. Finally, 16 people were rescued.

 "I Had to Survive " is Roberto Canessa's 2016 account of what happened five decades ago. The 69-year-old spoke to DW about the harrowing experience.

Deutsche Welle: How did the crash impact your life?

Roberto Canessa: Without a doubt, I was given a chance for a second life. I thought I was going to die because you most certainly die in an airplane that flies straight into a mountain. I never would have thought I could save myself, and so the motto "72 days. As long as there is life and hope, maybe there will be a tomorrow!" became the driving force in my life.

How did you experience the solitude of the Andes after the plane crash?

We were prisoners of the mountains. We had a small radio that made us realize that the world was still turning. The radio station was in Chile. It was very depressing to hear that people were enjoying the spring while we were struggling and everything seemed doomed.

A group of men in suits, in 2 rows, the front row kneeling, indoors.
A 2012 photo with the 16 men who survived in the endImage: Jose Manuel De La Maza/GOVERNMENT OF CHILE/picture alliance

What kept you alive?

The worst for me was the incredible uncertainty of being so close to death and yet so far away. Just a few meters away lay many of my friends, dead — but I was alive. Everywhere else, all was still well with the world. And we understood that we would survive if we managed to keep ourselves alive as long as possible. We couldn't give up.

At some point you were hit by an avalanche...

Yes, after 19 days, eight more passengers died, and I saw that things could always get worse. The day we were buried alive by the avalanche, I thought it couldn't get any worse than what I had experienced.

You also ran out of food and tried to live on leather belts or drink cologne, before you realized that wasn't enough. So you decided to turn to the bodies of the deceased. How do you come to accept such a situation?

The thought grows slowly, a product of hunger. And it is terrible to realize that the bodies of friends will provide fat and meat. It is like a mental process in which the handbook of civilized life loses its validity and you have to operate on animal instinct, rationalize and internalize it. I felt very humiliated and felt it was a great violation of civilized principles. But I also accepted that I was not doing anything that should not have been done to me in that situation. It would have been an honor for me to serve others in that way.

After 62 days, you decided to go for help and ended up trudging more than 70 kilometers through the snow. Did a particular event push you to face that challenge?

Another friend had died, and Nando Parrado told me that more would probably die over the next few days, and that he and I would be so weakened that soon we would be unable to do anything. So we decided to get help. The path was difficult. There was another, higher mountain where we thought the summit was. But at least we knew every step was a step toward our goal. At some point, we saw a river, vegetation, — even a lizard. And when I saw that, I knew that we were saved, that I would not die in the snow like my friends. So we hiked on until we ran into Sergio Catalan, a mule driver.

Exhibit in a glass case showing a piece of clothing
The crash survivors made clothing from the material of the plane seatsImage: Federico Gutierrez/dpa/picture alliance

What were your thoughts when you saw him?

I said to myself: "We made it." From then on, the world would know that there were survivors in the mountains, that they had been wrong, and that we had been wrongly mistaken for dead. And most importantly, that our friends would finally be rescued.

It's been almost five decades since the plane crash. What lessons have you learned over all those years?

You can't just sit there and wait for the helicopters to come, you have to start looking yourself, on foot if necessary. That's how we learn how to get things done and achieve our goals.

To people out there going through tough times: I know what it's like to climb a mountain and lose heart. But don't give up. Understand what you have achieved in life and that you can achieve much more. People don't have problems, they have difficulties. A problem is when you learn that you have only three months to live. Hitting a mountain range is a problem. Everything else is difficulties that make life interesting.

Did you stay in touch with the other survivors?

Yes, we are very close friends. We're not just a survivors' community, but also include the families of those who did not return.

Is there anything you regret?

(laughs) Sure. I shouldn't have boarded that plane!

This interview was originally conducted in Spanish.