I had to eat a piece of my friend to survive. It was repugnant
40 years on: Plane crash survivor who turned cannibal
By TOM GOODENOUGH
THE plane crash survivor who took a nightmare decision to EAT the flesh of
dead passengers to stay alive has defended his actions – 40 years to the day
since the disaster.
Dr Roberto Canessa was among the people who lived through the crash of
Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 in the remote Andes mountains between Chile
and Argentina on October 13, 1972.
They would eventually be rescued 72 days later after Roberto and another
passenger trekked for ten days to get help — but in the meantime they faced
starvation in the hellish conditions which saw temperatures plunge as low as
minus 40°C at night.
Roberto, now 59, recalls: “I felt I was taking advantage of my dead friends.
But then I thought, ‘If I die, I would have liked to have given my body for
the project of life of other people.’
“It was a source of protein and fat — the only source we had. But it was
repugnant. Through the eyes of our civilised society, it was a disgusting
“I felt very, very humiliated. My dignity was on the floor, having to grab a
piece of my friend and eat it in order to survive.
“And at that moment I was saying, ‘Is it better to die?’ But then I thought of
my mother and wanted to do my best to get back to see her. I swallowed a
piece, and it was a huge step — after which nothing happened.”
Of the plane’s 45 passengers — which included Roberto’s rugby team, the Old
Christians — 12 died in the impact, another five had died by the next
morning, and another a week later. On the 17th day another eight were killed
in an avalanche. In the weeks that followed, another three died.
But the outlook for the 16 who lived on was just as bleak. Stuck 11,800 feet
up in brutal mountainous terrain, they were all assumed dead by rescue teams.
And the families of those on the plane had all but given up hope — until more
than two months later, when news trickled through that two bedraggled men
had emerged from the icy wilderness to raise the alarm.
Their story was immortalised in the 1993 film Alive, and Roberto — now an
eminent paediatric cardiologist — says memory of the freezing conditions
have remained with him. He says: “The cold on your bones was like someone
pressing down with pliers.
“We were in a lifeless environment with only snow and stars up there and we
felt the need of life which we knew was out of the mountains. We were in a
place not for humans and which we didn’t belong to. The mountains are just
wind, snow, avalanches and rocks.
Roberto, who was then a medical student, says it was thinking about his mum
that helped him through — rather than his girlfriend Laura, who he went on
to marry. They now have three children.
He reveals that he battled for survival so that his mum would not go through
the same anguish of loss that he felt in losing his friends.
He says: “If you die yourself, then that’s one thing, but if you cause
suffering to someone else, that was something I couldn’t stand. I did my
best for her. It kept me going.”
And having lived through the ordeal in the Chilean Andes, Roberto — who today
lives in Montevideo, Uruguay — has dedicated his life to helping others.
In his work as a doctor, he likens the ultrasound scans of new-born babies to
his memories of gazing out of the windows of the wrecked plane where the 16
survivors took refuge. But from that inhospitable prison, looking ahead to
2012 seemed all but impossible.
He says: “When I was in the Andes in 1972, there is no way I could have looked
ahead 40 years to now. I am thankful to God for the chances I had that
others didn’t. Sometimes I try to imagine what it would have been like if
all 45 of us had lived instead of just 16. But I have tried to live for my
friends who didn’t make it out of the mountains.
“It woke me up to life. When there’s a sunny day, you enjoy it without
complaining. You enjoy everything after being in the mountains with no
water, no bed, no laughing.
“I realised that we receive more in life than what we need and do less than
what we can. It’s up to us to be happy. We always complain about being left
“When we realised the search had been called off, a friend of mine said to me,
‘This is good news because now we have no doubt about whether to wait for
the rescuers or go out of the mountains ourselves.’
“We see people in life waiting to be helped because they are unhappy — their
happiness is dependent upon someone else.”
Members of Old Christians Rugby team pose for a picture in the plane’s tail on December, 1972 in Mendoza, Argentina.
Although the survivors were lauded as heroes, they were also labelled as
cannibals, but Roberto insists they had no choice.
He says: “We knew the search had been called off. The only thing we could do
was to buy time.
“It’s a part of the experience, but it wasn’t the most important thing about
“When you’re safe in civilised society, you can’t imagine what it is like to
be in the situation we were in. We were freezing and you feel it in your
But, he adds, despite the constant focus on the subject, it wasn’t just eating
their dead friends that enabled them to survive. For the camaraderie which
the Old Christians rugby club had instilled in the men during their playing
days served them well in the Andes.
He says: “We survived and were able to walk out of the mountains because of
“Leaving the Andes, it was like a trip to heaven. Slowly, all your instincts
come back. Your instinct on the mountain was just survival. All kinds of our
emotions had just been locked up.
“You become a machine — you only care about your next step and whether your
friends around you can give you heat.
“And all you can think about is what to eat, where you can shelter and to
think about your dreams. You regress to the most basic form of life.”
Yet Roberto says he feels inspired, not haunted, by what he suffered in the
He continues: “I think life is very simple. We make it complicated with lots
of irrelevant factors.
“We forget what life means until your plane crashes and you’re stranded in the
mountains and you realise how fortunate you were.
“It makes you appreciate the time you lost complaining and not enjoying life.
“My wife and I are a very normal couple. Life goes on — I play tennis and I am
“I thank God for the life I’ve had and look back and think of the memories of
my friends who died. The memory of our friends has been respected by us
having tried hard to succeed in life because of them.
“My children are very similar to me — they all have a great sense of humour.
They say, ‘Today, you cannot speak to Daddy because he is the hero of the
Andes. He knows everything and he knows what to do. We’ll wait for him to be
a normal daddy!’
“When people ask my son what it is like to be the son of a hero, he says, ‘I
don’t know, I wasn’t born at that time.’ ”