bout four decades after the accident that changed his life, doctor Roberto Canessa remembered that he had to eat his friends in order not to die of hunger. Roberto is one of sixteen people who survived after their plane crashed in the Andes Mountains between Chile and Argentina on October 13, 1972. They were rescued after seventy-two days of extreme survival in the middle of nowhere. Canessa was only nineteen years of age at the time and he was a medical student.
Today, the doctor confesses that he will never forget the time he turned into a cannibal, eating from the dead passengers in order to survive. The worst part is that some of the passengers were his friends, which severely affected his mental health.
“It was disgusting. In the eyes of a civilized society, this was a revolting decision. I stood up to my dignity when I decided to eat chunks of my friends to survive. I felt like I was taking advantage of my friends who died.” says Roberto Canessa.
Everything to survive
On October 13, 1972, at 3:35 pm, a Fairchild FH-227 turboprop aircraft of the Uruguayan Armed Forces crashed into the Andes, on the border between Chile and Argentina. There were forty-five people on board, five of whom were crew members. The remaining forty were members of the Christian Rugby Football Club rugby team and a few members of the players’ families.
The president of the Uruguayan Rugby Federation, Gustavo Zerbino, one of the survivors of the aviation catastrophe of 1972 — in which twenty-nine people lost their lives — recounted how the sixteen survivors were forced by circumstances to choose between starving to death or eating their deceased friends in order to survive until a rescue team would find them.
Doctor Roberto says that the only thing that helped him survive was the thought of his mother and the desire not to cause her suffering through his death. At the point where he had to turn to cannibalism, Roberto said that he had no choice. They were in a place where there was nothing but snow, a place where people had absolutely no business in being. So cold and so secluded that even wild animals were a rare sight, as there was no vegetation nor smaller living beings to prey upon.
Their fate seemed hopeless because the plane had crashed into the mountains and collapsed at over 4,000 meters altitude. Between night and day, there was a huge temperature difference. Five died on impact, and twelve others died during the five-kilometer crash where the aircraft went downstream. The survivors tried to go as far as possible to look for help and even screamed for hours but with no response, this confirmed that they were in a totally secluded location which meant that the chances of rescue were extremely low.
With this new knowledge, the mental health of the survivors was diminished, knowing that there was no hope and they had to prepare for the unthinkable…certain death. Doctor Roberto tried to raise the hope of the group by telling them they will surely send search parties along the plane’s flight path.
After some time, the group of survivors glued the wires from a detached instrument from the board of the plane to get a radio signal about the search missions. Sadly, the news was not good, one after the other, the search missions had been a failure. After a few more days, the survivors heard some devastating news on the radio: the search team had given up looking for the crashed plane or any survivors.
Many of the survivors became hysterical at that point, however, some of them, such as Doctor Roberto, had mentally prepared for such news due to the secluded location they had crashed in, but this did not mean the end. At this point, they made the decision of splitting the group into two so that a group would go look for the other half of the plane where their supplies were, as starvation was starting to affect them. It is imperative to mention that by this point none of the survivors thought of taking part in a cannibalistic act.
Without supplies, the survivors of the “tragedy in the Andes” passed from peanuts, biscuits, and tree bark to the remains of friends who had died in the accident. In the first week, the survivors were feeding on jam, and biscuits and drinking some bottles of brandy that they had obtained from Mendoza, which they found in their luggage that had somehow escaped intact. After they had finished all the provisions, they ate shell and tree branches and took a mouthful of snow.
Seventeen days after the crash, something terrible happened, which brought the survivors down from a mental point of view. A powerful avalanche swept the valley in which they were and covered the remains of the fuselage. The snow penetrated through the impoverished wall behind the fuselage and covered the survivors.
After a few days, when all the supplies had run out, a shocking discussion between the survivors followed up. The only solution for survival was to eat from the dead bodies of the other survivors, there was simply no other solution. The idea was welcomed pretty well taking into consideration the starving stomachs and terrible mental state that the survivors were in. This discussion happened thirty days after the crash. Doctor Roberto was the first to eat from the deceased survivors.
Doctor Roberto described that extreme hunger made turning cannibalistic much easier, but the next days they were mentally tested, as the thought of having eaten their dead friend did not leave their mind, not even in their sleep.
On the 72nd day after the crash, on Christmas day, a farmer from the mountainside discovered the survivors. They mentioned that he was an angel sent from God as their savior. Even after they had been rescued, their cannibalistic act for survival left them with a tremendous mental disturbance, however, they never hid from their dire and desperate actions.
The incredible story of the aviation accident in the Andes was screened in two films, the first in 1976 and the other in 1993. The story can be read in better detail with the book that I will source at the end of the article.
The media had tried to shine a dark light on all of the survivors by publicizing the fact that they had turned cannibalistic. I think that this isn’t right, their survival instinct came into play and extreme hunger can drive people insane to the point of making dire decisions. If you have read the book it will offer you an extensive presentation of the emotions that the survivors felt, as well as the mental issues they developed during the extreme survival period.