As I kissed my fiancée Soledad goodbye at the airport, I felt full of excitement. It was 12 October 1972, and I was off to Santiago in Chile, where some of my friends from the Stella Maris Catholic college in Carrasco, Uruguay, were going to play an alumni rugby match. I wasn’t participating myself but had been asked along by my best friend Gastón and was looking forward to four days away with friends.
As I boarded the plane, I moved to sit next to Gastón, but someone got there first, so I took a seat further forward. Ninety minutes into the flight, we hit an air pocket. We quickly hit another, and I heard the pilot shout, “Give me power!” I could feel the plane was at a steep incline and was heading straight towards the mountain. There was a huge crash as the wing hit the rocks. Pushed back into my seat, I put my head between my legs and closed my eyes, desperately trying to block out what was happening. I was convinced I was going to die at 24.
As the plane slid down the mountain, I felt air and snow whipping past me. As it stopped, all the seats ploughed forward into the bulkhead, killing or injuring several passengers. There was a moment of absolute silence quickly followed by shouts for help. As I looked behind me, there was nothing. The back of the plane was completely gone, taking Gastón and our friends with it. Mine was the last row left.
Why did I survive, and for what? The truth is I don’t know. I’d been about to sit next to Gastón, but a moment of chance saved my life. I gave thanks to God without knowing if He had intervened. There were 27 of us alive, with 24 unharmed.
Darkness fell quickly that night, and as I found somewhere in the fuselage to rest, I felt someone beside me. It was 19-year-old Roberto Canessa. We spent the night huddled together, trying to keep one another awake. I can’t believe we didn’t die that night, dressed in our light summer clothing in the freezing cold, but our body heat kept us both alive. Again I gave thanks to God. Logically everyone should have died but something far above us, beyond our comprehension, was guiding what happened.
For ten days we survived on melted snow to drink and the meagre items of food we’d found in the plane. We heard on a transistor radio we’d salvaged from the rubble that the search for survivors from our crash had been called off. Painfully aware that our food supply had dwindled, we found ourselves with no alternative other than to discuss the unthinkable: eating the frozen flesh of our dead friends. We argued back and forth but we felt we had to defend and honour the life that had been given back to us. We made a pact: everyone agreed that if they died their body could be used as food.
Sixteen days after the crash, we heard what sounded like 300 horses galloping towards us as an avalanche buried us all under metres of compacted snow. My friend Fito’s foot was on my face, creating an air pocket, but with so little oxygen I felt my body surrender to death at last. I saw my father, who had died a few years earlier, and was eager to embrace him. I felt absolute peace but in amongst this, I heard my father’s voice telling me to go back to my friends, that I still had work to do.
Suddenly Fito was lifted out of the snow by other survivors and my lungs filled with air. Eight of our friends died in the avalanche. I was saved because just beforehand, I’d swapped places with the rugby team captain Marcelo Pérez, at his request. We spent three days cramped into the fuselage, unable even to stretch our legs. We were soaked through and felt utter despair. Forced to eat the bodies of our friends who’d just died, we were reduced to the worst dregs of humanity. But after three days we were somehow able to dig a tunnel towards the cockpit and escape through a window.
The snow was white and clean and the sky an intense blue with sunshine that felt like a warm embrace. I watched my friends emerge from the tunnel into the pristine snow and it felt like we had been reborn. For the first time, I knew beyond doubt that God was present. Here He was, expressed through the men in front of me. Freed and alive after three days in our tomb, the symbolism was clear.
From that moment, we started to make smarter decisions and it was agreed that three men Roberto Canessa, Nando Parrado and Antonio ‘Tintín’ Vizintín, would walk to Chile to find help. We prepared them for the expedition, giving them what food we could find and investigating the best places to sleep; we even made them a sleeping bag for the trip. Roberto, Nando and Tintín set off on 12 December. By then, I’d developed gangrene in my right leg and to avoid amputation I cut a deep cross in my foot with a razor blade, allowing oxygen to the wound. The pain was excruciating. I could barely move or eat. Weakened and despairing, I had lost 45 kilos (half my bodyweight) and decided that if the trio hadn’t summoned help by 24 December, I’d allow myself to die.
But again that wasn’t my decision to make. Tintín returned after three days but Roberto and Nando continued their trek and two days before I was due to surrender to death we heard on the radio they’d crossed the Andes and we were saved. This time it was not just luck. It was the willpower, courage and strength in Nando and Roberto’s legs. It was God in them and through them, as well as the heroism of the herdsman who saw them and alerted the authorities and the bravery of those who rescued us from the mountain.
Though we spent 72 days on the mountain, we were never alone. God was among us. We prayed every day, which calmed us, and it was God who determined our survival. God was behind the many coincidences that had allowed us to mercifully escape death. It was God who guided Nando and Roberto through the
mountain and towards our eventual rescue.
Why me? Why did I pull through? I survived in order to be able to share this story with others so I can tell them about the God I experienced on the mountain and His son, the man. I felt the presence of God and I knew him through the men that were there with me. He was in their looks, in their actions, in their words. He was present in the courage they showed that arises out of the most brutal fear and gave them the strength to overcome it, and – most importantly – in their love for each other.
It’s not worth saving yourself if you do not then live in order to DO SOMETHING for others, something that serves God, something that helps Him. I think our God chose us with total awareness so that, in his image and his likeness, we’d take the steps necessary to lose all fear, to be free, and so to arrive at the truth that gives meaning to life and existence.
I believe that one can find peace in life and to do so you must walk the path of happiness. You need to realise how much more rewarding it is to give than to receive and that giving has no limit. When you encounter this peace, all your fears disappear. You are no longer afraid and so you become free. Thank you, God.
Jose Luis “Coche” Inciarte’s Memories of the Andes is out now (Heddon Publishing).