Q & A
30 years later, plane crash survivor recalls harrowing ordeal in the Andes
Ignore the title of Nando Parrado's new book, Miracle in the Andes. Anyone familiar with this plane-crash survival story either from the original news accounts, Piers Paul Read's best-selling 1974 book Alive or the movie that dramatized it knows that the experience illustrates the triumph of rationality, not the blessings of blind luck. The survivors simply outsmarted the elements that should have killed them all.
Here's what happened: On Oct. 12, 1972, a rugby team set off from Montevideo, Uruguay, to fly to Santiago, Chile, for a game. There were 45 people on the plane, including the crew, Parrado (who was a member of the team), his mother and his sister. The next day the plane crashed high in the Andes. Twenty-nine people survived the crash, but only 16 were still alive 72 days later when rescuers finally arrived. Stranded without food, the survivors began eating their own dead. After a number of thwarted starts that led nowhere, Parrado and his friend, Roberto Canessa, finally were able to trudge across the high mountains and summon help an ordeal that took 10 days. Thus, an experience that might have turned into a real-life Lord of the Flies became instead The Magnificent Sixteen.
Parrado was an adviser for the 1993 film Alive! so it is no surprise that his book describes essentially the same incidents as the movie. Where the book departs is in its plumbing of the author's mind as he comes to terms with his own severe injuries, the many deaths after the crash, the realization that no one is looking for the survivors and, always, the bone-chilling cold.
The precision with which Parrado remembers specific dates and details may strain one's belief, and the generosity of spirit he attributes to virtually everyone seems more after-the-fact than contemporaneous with the event. Even so, the tenacity and cooperation of the youth most were between 19 and 21, Parrado was 23 were amply demonstrated by their survival. Parrado, now 56, is a prominent TV producer and motivational speaker. To clear up some questions the book raised, BookPage contacted him in Montevideo, where he still lives.
Are all 16 who were rescued still alive?Yes, they are all alive and very well indeed. Were any lawsuits filed as a result of the crash?No lawsuits were ever made against the Uruguayan Air Force [which owned the plane], the government or anybody else, [either] from the group or from an individual.
As an adviser to the movie Alive! were you satisfied with the way it turned out? Yes. It was quite a big effort and the best movie that could be made according to the budget. [Director] Frank Marshall really got involved in the movie, and everything in it is 100 percent true. Are you able to go for long periods without thinking about the crash? Yes, sometimes for weeks. When something hard or difficult comes to me, then I remember or when I look at my family. Then I'm really thankful that I am alive and able to enjoy them. What were some of the survival elements it took you too long to learn? How to fight the cold, how to use the snow as an ally and not as an enemy [and] that you should climb mountains through the ridges and not straight on. What was there about your father that drew your thoughts so strongly to him during the ordeal?We were very close, and I was always thinking how terrible he must be feeling having lost his family in one accident. Your account of the experience is very detailed and specific. Did you keep any sort of records while your were on the mountain? No. Some things are hard to forget! Did you feel the way you thought you would when you returned to the crash site? I returned to the site of the crash 11 times with my father to put flowers on the graves of my mother, sister and friends. It's an amazing landscape when you are in the company of a great guide and a well-organized expedition. [There's] maybe a sense of pride and accomplishment looking at those enormous mountains and having defeated them. [There's] also some sadness but no grief or pain.