The amazing survival story of a Uruguayan rugby team in 1972
By Chris Skudder, Sky News
Last Updated: 11/10/15 3:54pm
England take on Uruguay in their final Rugby World Cup match this evening. This though is the epic story - as told by Sky News' Chris Skudder - of how a Uruguayan team survived a plane crash in the Andes in 1972...
It came to be known as The Miracle in The Andes.
But Nando Parrado's story is so extraordinary, so unlikely, that 43 years later it still feels like a miraculous coming together of numerous miracles all at once.
Parrado, now in his sixties, was only 21 when his life changed.
His presentation of the story at London's Barbican last week was deeply affecting: a 90-minute monologue about staring death in the face, surviving against all odds and spending the next four decades re-evaluating the true meaning of life and love.
Parrado was one of 45 rugby players, family, friends and crew making a routine flight across the Andes from Uruguay to Chile.
In bad weather their plane clipped the top of a mountain in Argentina.
The back half sheared off at cruising speed sending those at the rear of the plane tumbling to their deaths, and the front portion of the fuselage, minus any wings, shooting forwards like a torpedo over the ridge.
By chance, it hit the downward slope on the other side at the exact angle that allowed it to become a tube-like sledge, hurtling down into a bowl before hitting a snowdrift and coming to rest.
The boys, from Uruguay's coast had never seen snow before.
Parrado was lucky. He was in the ninth row of seats. The 10th, and everything behind him had disappeared into oblivion on the other side of the mountain.
He still remembers the impact, before blacking out and only regaining consciousness four days later.
His mother died instantly, followed by his sister, cradled in his arms a week later.
By complete luck, the plane's wingless descent down into the snowbowl had found the only narrow chute without giant rocks and boulders.
Contact would have killed them all, but by a miracle they missed the obstacles and more than half of those onboard "barely had a scratch on them".
Others had open fractures to the legs and without treatment none of that group survived the next two and a half months in the frozen wilderness.
Rescue they felt would come. But it didn't. The plane was so far off course that the searchers were looking in the wrong place.
The white plane was invisible in the snowy blanket of the mountain. The crew were dead and the radio didn't have any batteries.
All hope seemed lost when they located the broken off tail of the plane, found batteries to get the radio to work, only to hear via a crackly message over the airwaves on their 10th day on the mountain that the search had been called off.
The rescuers believed that no one could have survived the crash.
They were abandoned, and in their minds condemned to die.
They had no food, no water, no clothes bar those scattered about the wrecked fuselage, and even less hope.
But this story has endured, and at the time, in the early 70s, became controversial, because of what happened next.
Surrounded by corpses frozen in the snow the group made the decision to eat from the bodies to stay alive.
"The 29 guys that were still alive, abandoned, no food, no rescue, nothing …what do you do?" asked Parrado.
"A totally natural thing?" I suggested.
"Yes, totally natural. Twenty-nine guys, we donated our bodies, hand in hand we made a pact. If I die please use my body so at least one of us can get out of here and tell our families how much we love them."
That "one of us" was Parrado, along with his friend Roberto Canessa, who somehow found the strength to climb out of the mountains nearly two months later.
In those intervening months 13 more of the 29 who made that pact died on the mountain, five from their injuries and eight more in a catastrophic avalanche that buried the stricken fuselage that had become their refuge.
Parrado now sees those who died and gave up their bodies for food as the very first "consent donors", like modern organ donors enabling others to live.
He believes that rugby saved their lives.
"Discipline, teamwork, endurance. We worked as a team, a rugby team, there was never a fight. Condemned to die without any hope we transported the rugby feeling to the cold fuselage at 12,000ft."
Among those who Parrado helped rescue was Gustavo Zerbino, 72 days trapped on the mountain, and who 43 years later is now watching his nephew Jorge turn out for Uruguay at this World Cup.
But none of it would have been possible without Nando Parrado.
Alongside Canessa he defied death and impossible odds, trekking and climbing "mountains higher than any in Europe", with little strength and no equipment for 10 days and 80 miles.
Eventually spotted by a peasant farmer in the Chilean foothills they reached help and returned via helicopter to rescue the rest of those waiting to die in the mountains.
And all that with only human flesh to sustain them.
Parrado lost more than seven stones (44kg) along the way, approaching half of his body weight.
It was one of the greatest survival stories in human history, perhaps THE greatest.
As Parrado showed us at his London presentation, a team of leading US mountaineers recreated the pair's climb out of the mountains, fully kitted out and fed, in 2006.
They concluded that the Uruguayans should never have made it.
They believed that had they known before they left the stricken plane the near impossibility of the journey ahead, they would never have left.
But they did. And nearly four and a half decades on, 16 of their number have lived to see Uruguay carry the spirit of the Andes survivors onto the world rugby stage.