Miracle in the Andes

Maybe you’re familiar with the story, especially if you’ve seen the movie Alive: 45 people, including an Uruguayan rugby team, their friends, family and supporters, crashed in the Andes in October 1972. By the time the survivors were rescued over two months later, only 16 had survived.

Those who did survive were starved to the point that they were forced to make the difficult choice to eat the flesh of those who had died in the initial accident and the avalanche that followed.

The accident and its aftermath were detailed to remarkable effect in the 1973 book Alive by Piers Paul Read, and the movie two decades later starred Ethan Hawke and other up-and-coming American actors. Such coverage has made the Andes flight disaster part of our pop culture, and now, over 30 years after the accident, the survivors, some of whom were still teenagers at the time of the crash, are middle-aged men.

One of these men, Nando Parrado, has written a personal account of the tragedy, Miracle In The Andes: 72 Days in the Andes and My Long Trek Home.

Whereas Alive was an impartial look at the tragedy taken from the accounts of those who survived it, Parrado’s book is the story of his personal struggle, which involved a fractured skull, the deaths of his sister and mother in the crash, and his climb over the Andes into Chile to summon help for those stranded in the wreck of the plane. His book also tells of what happened to the survivors (all of whom are still alive) in the decades since the crash.

After 30 years, it’s interesting to have a fresh perspective of what happened on the mountain. There are many details of the story that Parrado manages to flesh out, and on some counts he attempts to set the record straight, taking the heat off of some members of the group who Parrado feels were unfairly portrayed in Alive. The personal touches in Parrado’s book make the story all the more heartbreaking.

Many people consider Parrado a hero for his actions, and he certainly has earned that title. After losing so many people who were close to him, he was the driving force behind the escape from the Andes. He led another teammate, Roberto Canessa, on a 70-mile trek to the top of a 13,500-foot mountain, down the other side and into the high grasslands of Chile, where they were finally discovered by peasant farmers who notified the authorities. After traveling all that way on foot, Parrado then summoned the courage to guide helicopters to the crash site to rescue the remaining 14 survivors.

I had the opportunity to interview Parrado, who came to Portland on a publicity tour to promote the book he says he wrote for his father, whose influence was what gave Parrado the strength to escape the Andes.

Parrado discusses in his book one of the stranger reactions the survivors faced when they returned home to Uruguay. Many people compared the boys’ victory over the Andes to the Uruguayan soccer team win in 1950.

Parrado was shocked at this reaction.

“I think that comparing this life-and-death thing, where people died because of the hardship and the environment and the pressure and the avalanche, and comparing it to a soccer game, it’s-” he trails off for a moment. “If you lose a soccer game, you come in second. You lose here, you die.”

Upon returning to Uruguay, bearded and emaciated, Parrado was easily recognized. Many people treated him as a hero or a celebrity. I asked him how that felt.

“People tell you, it was so great, it was so great,” Parrado said. “And I don’t know if it was great or not. I had to fight, I was dying.”

Something that helped Parrado to keep living in the Andes was the thought of his father back home in Uruguay. In his book, Parrado expresses desperately wanting to make it back home to his father to try to ease his suffering and show that he had survived. The memory of his father compelled him to keep breathing, living, and planning his escape.

When Parrado did get home, he found his new life to be very different from the one he’d left behind. “I lost my mother, my sister, my two best friends,” he said. “I cracked my head open. I led the way out. And then I got home and my life was shattered. Two months later I was living alone in a flat, looking at a wall, going ‘Jesus, what happened?'”

“Honestly, when I wrote this, I never thought it was going to be published all over the world. I wrote it for my father; I thought it was going to be published by a small publishing company in Uruguay. Suddenly it exploded all over the world. It surprises me, it amazes me.”

So why wait 30 years to write the book? “I was in no hurry,” he said. “I wrote this book to honor my father and to honor love between our family.”

But now that Parrado’s father is 88, the time came to write it all down.

And the response? Parrado’s little book was picked up by a New York publisher and has been translated into several languages. “It’s been beyond what I even thought it would be,” he said.

He does have a theory, though, as to why people are so drawn to his book:

“It’s a love story.”