43. Alive by Piers Paul Read (1974) 318 p.

(spanish accent) no thanks to the plane, many of us are still... ALIVE!

Everybody is vaguely aware of the story of the Andes plane crash: the rugby team that went down in the mountains and resulted in the survivors being forced to eat the flesh of the dead. That’s all most people know about it – that one grisly detail. Granted, it’s an important part, but after reading this book I can say that it’s only one part among many.

Forty-five people were on Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, a plane chartered by the alumni rugby team of Montevideo’s Stella Maris College to attend a match in Santiago, Chile. Aside from the team members themselves, there were also friends and family onboard who had taken the opportunity to support the team and visit Chile. As it was flying through the Andes, a combination of bad conditions and pilot error caused it to clip the side of the mountain. One wing was torn off, flew backwards and sheared the entire tail section off the plane. Then the other wing came off. A crippled tube of a plane sailed through the air before sliding down a mountainside and coming to a halt in a snow-filled valley. Thirty-one of the plane’s forty-five passengers and crew were still alive. Only sixteen of them would leave the mountain alive.

They had crashed in a snowy desert. In one survivor’s words, there was nothing around them but “aluminium, plastic, ice and rock.” They had abundant water in the form of melted snow, but no food. Within weeks, they were forced to resort to eating the bodies of the dead passengers to stay alive. But this feature of their ordeal, which has been so reiterated and emphasised, poked fun at by everything from the Simpsons to Newstopia, is only one part of a much larger odyssey of survival. I will admit that I was originally attracted to this story because I’m a Lost fanatic. I’m absolutely fascinated by the concept of being on a plane, an ordinary person on an everday flight, and suddenly being plunged into a survival situation which pushes you to your physical and mental limits. As far as I can tell, this is the only situation in history where a plane has crashed and a number of survivors have been left isolated for an extended period of time. The crash occurred on October 13, 1972, and the boys were not rescued until December 23.

The bulk of this book concerns not the horrific act of cannibalism, but the myriad of other trials they faced to stay alive in such an inhospitable environment: an avalanche which killed eight of them and left the fuselage buried for three days, an expedition to locate the plane’s tail section, a frustrating two weeks spent trying to repair the radio, and their last-ditch effort to survive which sent two of their fittest, Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa, on a westward trek towards Chile to alert the outside world that they were still alive. It is a fitting reward to the courage, perseverance and resourcefulness of these young men – all but one of whom were in their teens or early twenties – that they were not rescued by a search team, but rather achieved deliverance through their own gutsy determination and will to survive.

Having said all that, I found this book compelling because of the real-life events it described, not because of any particular skill on Read’s part. While he certainly went to great lengths to track down enough information to weave a detailed account of the events, his position as an outsider naturally makes them feel somewhat distant and impersonal. Someone interested in the crash might be better off reading Nando Parrado’s personal account, Miracle In The Andes. Regardless, this is a story that is carried on the strength (and it’s a great strength indeed) of its real-life events, and I have no major issue with Read’s method of telling the story. Michael Chabon and Dan Brown could write books about this event, which would be at opposite ends of the artistic spectrum, and both versions would be equally engaging. No matter how it is told, this is an ageless tale of heroism, courage and adaptability. It’s just a shame that it’s so often remembered as a lurid story about the taboo of cannibalism.

He warned them that what they had done might come as a shock to the outside world.
“But will people understand?” the boys asked him.
“Of course,” he reassured them. “When the full facts are known, everyone will understand that you did what had to be done.”

Books: 43/50
Pages: 13, 028