I Had to Survive: How a Plane Crash in the Andes Inspired My Calling to Save Lives-Dr. Roberto Canessa with Pablo Vierci
The definition of courage is the ability to do something that frightens one. On October 13, 1972, Roberto Canessa was one of forty passengers aboard Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 bound for Santiago, Chile. The plane clipped the top of a mountain peak and crashed in a region known as the Valley of Tears. Seventy-two days passed before all of the survivors were rescued. Canessa and Nando Parrado, author of Miracle in the Andes, walked for ten days through the mountains towards Chile to find help. A peasant, Sergio Catalan, rode his horse for eight hours to notify authorities. The ordeal of the survivors was turned into a book called Alive, and a film of the same name starring Ethan Hawke and John Malkovich. In 2010, a documentary was released by the History Channel under the name of I Am Alive: Surviving the Andes Plane Crash. The films and books that have been published do an incredible job of allowing readers and viewers to step inside the nightmare than existed on that isolated mountain slope. Here, Canessa tells his story but his account differs from the others not in facts but in presentation and focus.
Parrado’s book deals mainly with the time they spend stranded in the Andes. The end of the book is focused on his life after the crash and updates on the other survivors. Canessa takes a different track and the book is not just about him but also about his family and patients. A small part of the book is dedicated to the crash. Canessa confirms statements given by Parrado both in his book and in the documentary. But I honestly believe it is what happens in his life after the event that makes the book so intriguing. As the story progresses, the reader will note that at times we are reading Roberto’s words and then another section will be the testimony of his children, father or patients. These interviews were not conducted by Canessa himself. Vierci, a childhood friend and journalist, reached out to Canessa’s patients and obtained their recollections without his involvement. I believe that this decision was critical to the book’s aura for it gives us a complete picture of not just the rugby player that survived the impossible, but also of a husband and doctor of medicine.
Dr. Canessa, as he has been known since finishing medical school in his native Uruguay, became a well-known cardiologist throughout the world. He has performed operations on scores of patients, mainly children and devoted his life to their survival. But as we read the stories and read Canessa’s words, we get the feeling that the Andes mountains always remain present in his mind and as he admits, they shape the way he has viewed life since he returned to Montevideo. He certainly could have never imagined he would face death in the autumn of 1972 but the experience is one which no person can ever fully leave behind.
As a supplement to the book, numerous color photographs are provided by Canessa and families of his many patients. The photos show the progression of age, wisdom and how far he has come in life. By his own admission, he has always been a bit rebellious and done things his way whether they were accepted or not. But it is this rebellious nature that served him well as he and Nando walked for over seventy miles to find another trace of human existence. The Chileans have a saying “the Andes don’t give back what they take”. For the players and other passengers on Uruguayan Flight 571, the mountains almost took everything. But sixteen young men held out hope, steeled their nerves and accomplished what no one thought could be done.
Dr. Canessa has lived his life applying the lessons he learned during that ordeal and his story will always amaze shock those who are discovering the story of the crash for the first time. Like Parrado’s book, I read this one sitting. His words and those are others are clear and in an easy to read format making the story flow smoothly without losing the reader’s attention. And although the crash took place more than forty years ago, the story of their survival and the approach to life by Canessa are more than enough to inspire anyone.