MONTEVIDEO, URUGUAY — We’d been strolling the streets of this lovely old city when we happened on a museum dedicated to a Uruguayan story that shocked the world.
On October 12th, 1972, a chartered Uruguayan Air Force Fairchild twin-engine turboprop took off from Montevideo. Aboard were 15 amateur rugby players, friends and family, bound for an exhibition match in Santiago, Chile. Delayed by bad weather, the plane touched down in Mendoza, Argentina, where passengers shopped and relaxed for a night. A grandmother bought red baby shoes for her grandchild back home.
The next afternoon, Friday 13, the aircraft, while en route to Chile, crashed in the high Andes. The gripping survival drama that followed absorbed us for hours, as we explored the Museo Andes’ three floors dedicated to the 29 Uruguayans who died, and the 16 who “returned to life after having endured 72 infernal days under the worst imaginable conditions.”
Above: Gripping photos of survivors and their words are displayed on the museum's walls for all to see.
The Museum’s blunt, honest narrative delivers a story bursting with heartbreak and heroism. Following storyboards, we see the timeline of a disaster-in-progress. Gazing at photographs, studying debris retrieved from the scene — is mesmerizing enough, but most poignant are the words of those who survived.
Uruguay, it should be noted, is mostly flat and warm, so some passengers had never seen snow, much less the majestic Andes.
Shortly after their twin-engine plane crash-landed on a glacier in “The Valley of Tears” at 3,500m, teammates and supporters swung into action, digging bodies out of the snow and tending to the injured, using team shirts as bandages.
Overnight, medical students became “doctors;” seat covers, makeshift blankets; a wall of snow inside the fuselage, insulation against punishing winds; melted snow, drinking water. Huddling together at night, trying to sleep in the torn fuselage and the luggage compartment, by day they searched the wreckage for supplies.
Hope was in the air, surely their rescuers were on their way. Soon, their meagre food supply — chocolate, candy, nuts, some wine — ran out. Starvation loomed. After long and painful discussions, a decision was made; they would use the dead bodies for meat — either that or die.
Above: It's had not to be moved by the museum's displays, especially the makeshift clothing used to stay alive and photos of those injured.
Then, 11 days into their ordeal, a transistor radio brought shocking news: the search had been abandoned. No one could survive in that cold, that thin air. Officially, they were dead. As if their plight could not grow worse, a late October avalanche killed eight more, asleep in the fuselage. For three days the rest were trapped, wet, half-buried in snow, until they clawed their way out through the cockpit.
As we follow the unfolding drama, another timeline shows the same 72 days. Honouring the deaths of those too weak or injured to survive, it also lists events happening in the outside world. Surprised, we spot a picture of Pierre Trudeau with news about a Canadian election. Life was going on without them.
By early December, death had claimed all but 16. On December 12, three young men set off to get help — their final attempt. Exhausted, Antonio “Tintin” Vizintin, turned back; friends Roberto Canessa and Nando Parrado carried on, kept alive in sub-zero nights in a sleeping bag sewn from the plane’s insulation. Ten days later, the ragged duo reached Chile’s verdant valleys. A weak and injured Roberto spotted a man on horseback and let out a yell across a roaring river.
If Chilean shepherd Sergio Catalan was startled to see a frantic, arm-waving stranger on the opposite bank of the San Jose River, he didn’t show it.
“Tomorrow,” he shouted back at them.
Left: Museum entrance.
Catalan indeed returned in the morning, threw paper and pencil wrapped around a rock to Nando Parrado on the opposite shore. Parrado penned a desperate plea before throwing the rock back. On the note, he wrote:
“I come from a plane that fell in the mountains. I am Uruguayan. We have been walking for ten days. I have a friend up there who is injured. In the plane there are still fourteen injured people. We have to get out of here quickly and we don’t know how. We don’t have any food. We are weak. When are you going to come and fetch us? Please. We can’t even walk.”
Then, an afterthought: “Where are we?”
All survivors would soon be rescued.
When rumours about eating the dead were confirmed, it made headlines around the world.
Their ordeal was vividly captured in Piers Paul Read’s 1974 bestseller Alive!. But this 2013 museum offers a special, respectful intimacy, largely thanks to its founder, businessman Jörg Thomsen.