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.
On October 13, 1972, Nando Parrado was a twenty-two year old rugby player with the Old Christians from Montevideo, Uruguay. The team was en route to Santiago Chile for an annual match against a rival team. As their Fairchild 227 flew north through the Andes following a navigational error by the plane’s pilots, it clipped the top of a mountain peak as the crew struggled to force the aircraft to climb over the deadly terrain. The initial crash killed several passengers and by the time the survivors were rescued in December, 1972, only sixteen remained. Their story was told by author Piers Paul Read in the 1974 book Alive and a film of the same title was released in 1993, starring Ethan Hawke and John Malkovich. In 2010, the History Channel released a documentary called I Am Alive: Surviving the Andes Plane Crash. In the documentary, Parrado is main narrator sitting in front the camera as viewers relive the nightmare. The film, book and documentary are accurate portrayals of the events that took place but are told by others who are relaying the stories of the survivors. This is Nando Parrado’s story and the will to survive that led him and co-survivor Roberto Canessa to walk for ten days in the hope of finding another human being and help for the other passengers left behind.
In the film Alive, Parrado is played by Ethan Hawke and despite the lack of Uruguayan Spanish in the film, Hawke provides a convincing portrayal. However for all of the Hollywood’s special effects and production etiquette, the film still fails to fully convey the nightmare that was their ordeal. Perhaps producers did not have enough time or felt that audiences would have revolted at all of the details. What is clear from Parrado’s account is that the horror that existed on the mountain slope was more than anyone could have imagined. Brutal, tragic and even macabre, it is a story that no filmmaker could write, such events happen by circumstance, albeit tragic. The survivors of the crash would never be the same again and according to Nando, a couple of them struggled later in life. But their story continues to amaze and inspire and is a prime example of the tenacity of the human will to live.
The beauty of this book is that these are Nando’s words as told by him. And what we see is a young man who through fate, rises to the occasion through sheer determination to live or in the alternative meet his death while trying. I have been to Montevideo and Punta Del Este, two important cities both in Uruguay today and in Parrado’s story. I have also been to Argentina and what I found interesting was the rugby aspect of his account. Football is without question the national sport throughout Latin America. But as we learn from Nando, Christian missionaries who traveled to Uruguay from Ireland insisted that the students at Stella Maris learn the United Kingdom pastime of rugby. And it was this game that served as the basis for their fatal flight. As their situation unfolds, the teachings and team spirit kicks in as they lean on each other in the struggle for survival.
The accusations of cannibalism that they faced is addressed by Parrado and he explains how and why they reached the decision to consume the only food they had left; the deceased. I cannot imagine what it was like mentally for them to even consider such an act let alone execute it. But in desperate times, we often rely on desperate measures. Readers will assuredly be divided on the issue but what we can all agree on is that had we been in that situation, we honestly do not know what we would have done until we were left with no other choices.
Although this is Parrado’s story, we also learn a great deal about the other players whom he becomes closer to as the ordeal goes on. By the end of the book, it is obvious that he and Canessa have become extremely close and are still friends to this day. They are bonded by their love of rugby and their shared experience on an isolated mountain in the Andes. The other survivors all play a role in the story and Parrado does not neglect their contributions and importance. I believe it is imperative to remember that many of the players were under twenty-five years of age. In fact, Carlos Páez Rodríguez turned nineteen as they face possible death. At that age, I could have never fathomed being in such a situation and the courage, tenacity and creativity displayed by the survivors is incredible.
I enjoyed this book so much that I read it one sitting while home on a dreary Saturday afternoon. But as I looked outside my window, I reminded myself that no matter how bad the weather is, it does compare to what Parrado, Canessa and the other survivors were forced to endure. The book is called Miracle in the Andes for good reason, it truly was a miracle that anyone made it off that mountain alive. Today at the age of sixty-eight, I am sure Nando Parrado remembers everything as if it happened yesterday. And until the day they leave here, Parrado, Canessa, Páez and the others will always look back at the time they came face to face with death in the Andes mountains. Now a husband and father of two adult daughters, Parrado is still a revered figure, known as an Andes survivor. A former race car driver who raced in Europe, he is long retired from the sport but his passion for all things in life is contagious and it is easy to see why he refused to give up his fight to live. This truly is a miraculous story and a great read.