How The Crash of Uruguayan AF Flight 571 Drove A Rugby Team To Cannibalism

On Oct. 13, 1972, a plane carrying 45 passengers, including the Old Christians Uruguayan rugby team, crashed in the Andes between Chile and Argentina. The Uruguayan Air Force flight 571 survivors believed they would be rescued within days. They could not have predicted how long their ordeal would last or that they would become famous as the "Andes mountains cannibals."

Of the 27 passengers who survived the impact, only 16 returned home alive when they were finally rescued over two months after the crash. In order to survive on an Andes mountainside, the rugby team crash survivors were forced to consume the flesh of fellow passengers who passed away.

Their plight has been referred to as the "miracle of the Andes" considering the incredible odds many of them beat to eventually return home. By the time they were rescued, search parties had been called off. Before resorting to cannibalism, many of them prayed to God to give them guidance. But they were starving, and while it couldn't have been an easy decision, they found the courage to cut into the bodies of their once co-passengers in order to sustain themselves. 

Following their rescue, the Uruguay rugby team's cannibalism made headlines all over the world. Many were stunned by their actions. Several of the survivors wrote books, and the movie Alive is based on their traumatic incident. Read on to learn more facts about the Andes flight disaster and just what a person can endure before they are driven to cannibalism.

  • A Pilot's Crucial Mistake Led To The Plane's Crash

    A Pilot's Crucial Mistake Led To The Plane's Crash
    Photo: Pedro Escobal / Wikimedia Commons / PUBLIC DOMAIN

    En route to a rugby match in Chile, the athletes aboard the flight weren't that alarmed when the pilot told them they were about to encounter turbulence. One of the passengers, Roberto Canessa, a 19-year-old medical student, recalled that someone near him said, “Aren’t we flying too close to the mountains?!”

    A moment later, the plane hit the side of a mountain. It was an error made by the pilot that brought down the plane. While still high among the Andes, the pilot had turned north to begin the descent into Santiago, Chile, but the mountains were still too high where they were. In an attempt to gain altitude, he tilted the plane nearly fully vertical which caused the plane to stall. It sputtered and then descended, hitting the mountainside. 

  • The Crash Itself Was Bloody Chaos

    Dr. Roberto Canessa, author of I Had To Survive: How a Plane Crash in The Andes Inspired My Calling to Save Lives, relayed how he felt after the plane struck the mountain. His body lurched forward upon impact, and he struck his head. His first thought was that he was going to die. He held on to his seat and began to pray.

    Next to him someone yelled, “Please God, help me, help me!” while another person shouted that he was blind. When Canessa looked over at the other passenger, he saw that his brain was coming out of his head. There was also a piece of metal protruding from his midsection.

  • The Plane Was Left In Ruins In The Middle Of A Blizzard

    The Plane Was Left In Ruins In The Middle Of A Blizzard
    Photo: YouTube

    When the plane finally came to a stop, the seats, in a domino effect, pushed forward towards the cockpit. The smell of jet fuel and people's screams filled the air. Canessa remembered how the plane's body split wide open. The fuselage broke apart and the tail was nowhere to be seen. The team, and their family and friends aboard the flight, were surrounded by mountains in the midst of a raging blizzard.

  • They Initially Believed Rescue Would Come Quickly

    They Initially Believed Rescue Would Come Quickly
    Photo: YouTube

    After they crashed, the team gathered whatever food and warm clothes they could find. They were convinced a rescue would arrive swiftly. They took their empty suitcases and made a cross out of them that could be easily seen. They also carved the snow out with footsteps to write out an SOS message for planes flying overhead.

    Their second day of desertion they heard both a jet and a smaller plane fly over them. Elated, they felt sure it was a rescue. Day after day came and went with no sign of help. 

  • An Avalanche Struck Several Weeks In, Taking More Lives

    An Avalanche Struck Several Weeks In, Taking More Lives
    Photo: Ben-Zin / Wikimedia Commons

    Out of the 45 people who were on the plane, 12 died in the crash. Five more passed away within hours. Another person died a week later from sustained injuries. On the 17th day, a sudden avalanche swept over the crash site. Eight people were killed.

    This is when times started to get especially dire. The survivors struggled desperately due to a lack of food. Trapped at an altitude of 11,800 feet, their second biggest enemy to starvation was the freezing temperatures.

  • Among The Team's Survival Methods: Urinating In Rugby Balls And Coats Made From Plane Seats

    Among The Team's Survival Methods: Urinating In Rugby Balls And Coats Made From Plane Seats
    Photo: YouTube

    The survivors resorted to many clever devices in order to stay alive.

    They melted snow for drinking water using a section of aluminum from one of the seats. They needed blankets for warmth and so they disassembled the wool seat covers. They used seat bottoms as snowshoes to walk around the thick snow. They packed suitcases into the fuselage to block the cold air. They fabricated sunglasses from plastic they found in the pilot's cabin. To accommodate people with broken legs, they made hammocks. They made sleeping bags from insulation in the plane's kitchen and they peed in rugby balls because if they tried to relieve themselves outside their urine would freeze.

    Roberto Canessa, a medical student at the time, used his middling skills to nurse the injured. He drained fluids and stabilized fractured bones. He was also responsible for moving the corpses, a job some could not tolerate. He noted in an interview with National Geographic, "You get very smart when you are dying."