Almost fifty-two years ago the crash of the Fairchild F-227 killed 29 people, many of them players of Old Christians of Montevideo. Some of the survivors of that time will be in the stands for Uruguay-Italy at the Rugby World Cup
On October 13, 1972, a Fairchild F-227 of the Uruguayan Air Force took off from Mendoza, Argentina, headed for Santiago, Chile. At 3.21 pm the pilot reported to the control tower in Santiago that he was flying over the Planchon Pass, in the Andes, on the border between Argentina and Chile. At 3.24pm the pilot reported that he was over the town of Curicò, Chile. And from the control tower he was authorized to turn north and begin the descent towards the Pudahuel airport in Santiago. At 3.30 pm the pilot announced that he was at an altitude of 5 thousand metres. But at 3.31pm, when an attempt was made to respond and direct from the control tower, the contact was lost. The plane was no longer visible, traceable or available. The plane had disappeared.
The plane’s journey had begun the day before, from Montevideo, Uruguay. On board, 45 people. Five of the staff: pilot, co-pilot and three flight attendants. And 40 passengers: 15 rugby players and 25 friends and relatives. The 15 rugby players were part of a team called the Old Christians Club, born in the Stella Maris college in Montevideo, founded by Irish lay people who used rugby as an education. And rugby is not just a sport, but a moral discipline.
The plane, officially missing, had crashed. Against a mountain: rock and snow. At 3,800 meters above sea level: at night, below zero. Cold, hunger, thirst. Traumas, illnesses, infections. Wounded and dead. Despair. And desperate attempts to return to the world. More than desperate, impossible, abortive, failed attempts. The last one brought together the three most courageous, convinced and resistant, and they were three rugby players: Roberto Canessa, Fernando Parrado and Antonio Vizintin. We couldn’t wait any longer. Just one more day of waiting would have meant the death of other kids who had survived up to that point. On them, the three wore everything possible. Parrado, for underwear, put on a Lacoste tank top and a pair of long women’s trousers. Above, three pairs of jeans and six sweaters. He covered his head with a wool balaclava, plus a hood, and protected his shoulders with pieces cut from a fur coat, and on top of it all a wool jacket. At his feet, rugby shoes and four pairs of socks covered in plastic supermarket bags, gloves and dark glasses. And an aluminum rod as a stick or ice axe. The supplies – pieces of meat, pieces of liver – had been calculated, with much optimism, to last 15 days.
The difficulties were enormous due to the slowness of the progress, the vertical walls, the proximity of the position, the uncertainty of orientation, the lack of strength and training. But the survival instinct was worth more. After three terrible days of climbing, Parrado and Canessa continued to climb and search and hope, Vizintin returned to the fuselage to inform his companions and save supplies. For Canessa and Parrado it took another three hours to reach the summit and another four days to descend into the valley, covering it first in the snow and then on rocks and meadows, until they found three men on horseback, and another day to finally be rescued.
It was December 21, 1972. Seventy days after the accident. And now no one, not even his family, hoped for a miracle. How was this possible? The truth seeped through – what to call it? indiscretion? confession? confidence? – a member of the Andean Rescue. The survivors had saved themselves by eating human flesh. Cannibalism, anthropophagy. It was shock, scandal, controversy. It was a bomb not only in Chile and Uruguay, but throughout the world. It fell to Pancho Delgado, one of the 16, to tell – between theory and theology – that when the moment came in which they no longer had food, they said to each other that if Jesus, during the last supper, had shared his flesh and blood with the apostles, they too had done so, a sort of communion. The Catholic Church also took sides: it did not share the idea of communion, but compared the intake of flesh to the transplantation of organs.
On Wednesday 20th, at 5.45pm, in Nice, Uruguay will face Italy in the preliminary round of the Rugby World Cup. The match will be attended by Vizintin and perhaps others of those old Uruguayans who survived in the Andes.