There was a sickening crunch and a violent jerk.
|Flight 571: slammed into the mountain|
The right wing of the plane was ripped off by the peak of the mountain and flung backwards into the rear of the fuselage. The plane, wildly out of control, smashed into a second peak, which tore off the left wing.
Inside the fuselage, the terrified passengers prepared for the shattered plane to plunge them to their deaths.
But the crash landing was miraculously to spare some of those on board. The fuselage hit a snow-covered mountain slope and slid downwards before coming to a halt in a deep drift.
|Beautiful: but not without food or clothing|
As a wall of silence descended over the wreckage, the injured and groaning survivors came to their senses. They had crashed in the lonely wilds of the high Andes. But they were alive.
There had been 45 people on board the Uruguayan Air Force flight 571 when it took off on Friday, 13 October, 1972. Among the passengers was the Old Christians Club rugby team from Montevideo, en route to Chile.
|Survived the crash: but can they survive the cold?|
As the injured survivors clambered from the wreckage they found that 38 of them were still alive, although several were suffering from such injuries that they would clearly not survive for long.
Their pitiful plight soon struck home. They were lost in the snowbound Andes at an altitude of 9,000 metres with neither food nor winter clothing. Worse still, they lacked any medical supplies - a major handicap given that many of them were suffering from serious wounds.
They gathered together the remaining food on board. It did not amount to much - some snacks, a little chocolate and a few bottles of wine.
There was nothing else to eat on these windswept mountains, nor any animals to hunt.
|Parrado and Canessa: survivors|
‘At high altitude, the body's caloric needs are astronomical…’ wrote Nando Parrado, one of the survivors. ‘We were starving in earnest, with no hope of finding food, but our hunger soon grew so voracious that we searched anyway ... again and again we scoured the fuselage in search of crumbs and morsels... Again and again I came to the same conclusion: unless we wanted to eat the clothes we were wearing, there was nothing here but aluminium, plastic, ice, and rock.’
It became clear that if they were to survive, they would have no option but to eat their dead loved ones. It was the only hope of keeping themselves alive.
Among the crash survivors was Roberto Canessa, a young medical student. He was convinced that a small party should try to hike over the mountains and seek help. Yet this involved a gruelling trek over some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain.
Canessa and two others - Nando Parrado and Antonio Vizintin - would have to climb peaks of almost 5,000 metres in altitude. They would also face extreme temperatures with no winter clothing equipment. Worse still, they had almost no food.
After two months on the mountain (they waited for the temperatures to rise a little) they set off on 12 December.
|The plane that crashed: like this one|
The lack of oxygen was their first hazard. The constant climbing left them dizzy and desperately short of breath. The cold, too, was hard to endure. They had made a makeshift sleeping bag, yet the nights were nevertheless bitter.
Parrado was the fittest: he reached the peak of the first high mountain in advance of the other two. From the top, he got the shock of his life. He’d thought they’d crashed just a few miles from the Chilean border and was expecting to see some distant signs of civilisation.
Instead, there was nothing but a wasteland of ice-bound mountains and valleys stretching for as far as the eye could see.
|Surviving: cold and hungry|
Only now did the men realise that they were stranded at a vast distance from the nearest human habitation.
Realising that the rescue hike would be even more arduous than anticipated, Vizintin was sent back to the crash site. The others meanwhile continued on their long climb.
For day after day they crossed lonely peaks and valleys. They were freezing at night and constantly starved. But they eventually found a stream that was to lead them out of the frozen hell. It was the Rio Azufre and it gave them a passage to below the snow line. After nine days of gruelling marching, they saw cows - a sure sign of human habitation.
As they prepared to make a fire that evening, Canessa looked up and noticed a man on the far side of the river. He shouted and waved, trying to show that they desperately needed help. Over the roar of the water they heard him shout ‘tomorrow.’
|The crash site today|
The two survivors slept soundly that night, aware that their ordeal was almost at an end. The Chilean horseman returned on the following day; he brought some bread which he hurled across the river, along with a pen and paper. They wrote down what had happened and flung it back.
The man went back to raise the alarm and get help for Canessa and Parrado. Shortly afterwards, a rescue party arrived and the two of them were given much needed shelter, food and water.
That same day, 22 December, two helicopters finally set off for the crash site. Despite atrocious weather they eventually plucked the remaining survivors from the mountain. They were in a desperate plight: cold, starving and suffering from extreme malnutrition.
But they had survived - survived an extraordinary 72 days without food and supplies in one of the bleakest spots on earth.