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Survivor of 1972 plane crash who resorted to cannibalism to survive in Andes Mountains speaks out

Dr. Roberto Canessa, now 70, recalls 72 days stranded atop the Andes Mountains with fellow Uruguayan rugby team members in 1972 ahead of the Jan. 4 release of "Society of the Snow."

A passenger of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, which crashed into the Andes Mountains in October 1972 and left survivors resorting to desperate measures until their rescue 72 days later, reflected on his harrowing experience for the upcoming film based on the tragedy. 

Slated for release Jan. 4, the Netflix movie “Society of the Snow” depicts the fate of the flight that never delivered the Uruguayan Old Christians Club rugby team to its scheduled match in Chile. 

Instead, the aircraft struck a remote mountain in western Argentina, shearing off both wings, splitting the plane in half and killing three crew members and nine passengers on impact.


Of 33 passengers who survived the initial crash, only 16 were rescued after survivors Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa hiked through perilous conditions with makeshift gear for 10 days to get help, according to Britannica. 

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The remarkable story of resilience has been relived countless times, most notably in the 1993 film “Alive.” But this film takes the reenactment a step further, taking viewers to the actual site of the notorious crash.

“We were shooting 12,000 feet, exactly in the same place where the plane crashed, at the same time of year,” “Society of the Snow” director J.A. Bayona told “Today.”

The movie was filmed in Montevideo, where the rugby team and other passengers boarded their fated flight, the Sierra Nevada in Andalusia and different locations in Chile and Argentina, where the real-life events took place, according to Netflix.

Canessa, now a 70-year-old pediatric cardiologist, according to People, told the outlet it was not easy watching the latest film. 

“I was immersed in that place again,” he said in a “Today” segment that aired Nov. 30. “I was back to the fuselage.” 

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Passengers on the flight created a crude shelter in the fuselage of the plane, cramming themselves into a space about 8 feet by 9 feet, removing broken seats and using them to close off the open end of the plane, according to Canessa’s biography, “I Had to Survive: How a Plane Crash In the Andes Inspired My Calling To Save Lives.”

Five passengers died of their injuries the first night on the snowy mountaintop in one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet.

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The remaining survivors were left with very little food — eight chocolate bars, a tin of mussels, three small jars of jam, a tin of almonds, a few dates, dried plums, candy and several bottles of wine. Parrado ate a single chocolate-covered peanut over the course of three days, according to his own biography. 

No natural vegetation or animals to hunt could be found, and their stock of food dwindled quickly despite strict rationing among 28 survivors in the initial weeks.

After managing to get a small transistor radio in the plane to work, survivors learned within their first week on the mountain that rescue efforts had been called off, according to “Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors.”

At that point, as detailed in Canessa’s autobiography and rehashed in the upcoming film, the remaining group agreed that, if they died in the harsh conditions, the others could consume their bodies to go on living. 

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Canessa, a 19-year-old medical student during the ordeal, was asked in his interview with “Today” about the moment the unthinkable decision “to eat their loved ones” was made.

“I thought if I would die, I would be proud that my body would be used for someone else,” Canessa said.

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In his autobiography, Canessa describes cutting flesh from bodies “amid much torment and soul-searching.”

“We laid thin strips of frozen flesh aside on a piece of sheet metal,” he recalled. “Each of us finally consumed our piece when we could bear to.”

Initially, the revolted passengers could only bear to eat the skin, muscle and fat of their fallen comrades. When their supplies of flesh had diminished, per Parrado’s autobiography “Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home,” they began to harvest organs from the corpses preserved by the cold. 

All the passengers were Roman Catholics, and some feared eternal damnation. Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Church in Uruguay later absolved the survivors of any wrongdoing, per France 24.

An avalanche would strike the fuselage of the plane 17 days after the crash, killing eight more passengers. Those who survived were trapped for three days inside a 3-foot by 3-foot space with the corpses.

Ultimately, they were forced to consume their newly dead companions raw, per Canessa’s book. 

After three days, the survivors dug out of their snowy prison, only to be met by a furious blizzard. In the following days, the passengers decided to send Canessa and Parrado out to find help. 

Ultimately, without proper mountaineering gear of any kind, the men climbed more than 4,000 feet to a higher peak over three days, wearing layers of clothing and using a sleeping bag made from parts of the destroyed airplane at night. They chose the direction they would walk from the higher vantage point and began their long journey to find help. 

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“We may be walking to our deaths, but I would rather walk to meet my death than wait for it to come to me,” Parrado told Canessa at the peak, per Outside.

“You and I are friends, Nando,” Canessa replied. “We have been through so much. Now, let’s go die together.”

After 10 days, they encountered a group of Chilean shepherds who went to get help. Since the crash, Canessa had lost 97 pounds – about half of his body weight, per Sky News. 

Actor Enzo Vogrincic lost 50 pounds to play Canessa in the new Netflix adaptation, according to “Today,” eating just a can of tuna and a tangerine each day in the days leading up to the film. Doing so at the site of the crash as the film crew prepared, he was better able to understand why the passengers made the decisions they did, per the outlet. 

Led by Parrado, the Chilean Air Force finally made its way to the crash site in three helicopters. Given the harsh conditions, the bodies of the dead were left at the glacier’s peak. They were ultimately buried in a mass grave onsite still visited by mountaineers today. 

Initially, the survivors kept the details of their 72 days atop the glacier to themselves. But after photos of a half-eaten leg taken by the Andean Relief Corps circulated and appeared on the front page of two Chilean newspapers, news outlets worldwide began speculating about the group’s methods of survival. 

The survivors held a press conference, where they explained the group’s pact to sacrifice their bodies and compared their actions to those of Jesus at the Last Supper, according to National Geographic. 

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