Head on Collision...

First published in Landrover Magazine

Roberto Canessa is the man who should be dead. Against impossible odds, he lived through a horrific plane crash, followed by a 72-day battle for survival in the frozen heights of South America’s Andes Mountains. Thanks to numerous newspaper and magazine articles, books, two movies and countless interviews Canessa’s story is well known. Still, sitting and chatting with him at his home in Montevideo, Uruguay, surrounded by all those clippings and photographs, the details of his story are just as vivid even today, more than 40 years after the incident.

All images ©Doug McKinlay

“That first night was the worst,” he said. “We didn’t know what happened other than we crashed. We tried our best to help the injured, placing them on the seat cushions, but it was chaos. Some guys were going out their minds, stepping on people, screaming. By the time it was dark I was exhausted. I said to myself ‘I am done. This is as much as I can do and I am going to die here’”.

On a cool spring day in 1972 a Fairchild FH-227 twin turboprop aircraft left Montevideo for a short hop over the Andes bound for Santiago, Chile. On board were 16 members of the Old Christians Rugby Club, accompanied by 29 supporters and family. Some relaxed, played cards or chatted among themselves. Others tossed a rugby ball about the cabin, keyed up for the upcoming friendly with the Santiago Old Boys.

They never made it.

At 3:30pm on Friday October 13th the Fairchild banked into thick clouds, encountered heavy turbulence and smashed into the face of a granite giant. A dislodged wing ripped off the tale section while a propeller tore into the cabin. Several people were killed instantly.

Despite his experience on the mountain rugby is still of great importance to Roberto Canessa, even if at 62-years old his role is more management than labour. As he takes the wheel of his 4X4 and gives me the 50-pence tour of Montevideo he is lost in thought. We drive along the wide sweeping boulevards of the Rambla, the coastal byway fronting onto the River Plate. He acts as tour guide, showing off some of the city's better known haunts. There is the Plaza de la Independencia, the warren of streets in the Old Town and of course the neighbourhood of Carrasco, home turf to the Old Christians.

Looking across at him, it’s obvious he is reciting by rote. After a short silence, Canessa is back on that mountain, still barely 20-years old, still struggling to stay alive and still trying to understand.

“During the crash I hit my head against the seat in front of me,” he said. “It made me dizzy but I was alive. I mean my feet were there, my arms were there; I could walk. Then I thought ‘this is it’, soon the fireman and doctors will show up, there will be ambulances, all the injured will be helped, everything will be taken care of, but then I went outside; we were in the middle of nowhere, I couldn’t believe it”.

All images ©Doug McKinlay

Of the 45 people on board – five of them crew – only 29 survived the crash; 17-days later an avalanche roared down the mountain, buried the fuselage and killed eight more. It’s at this point that Canessa says the fighting spirit of the Old Christians Rugby team kicked in. The team’s sense of courage and friendship, of honesty and determination is what gave them the strength to do battle with the elements.

“It wasn’t going to beat us,” he said. “The more difficult it became, the harder we fought to survive.”

One of the biggest problems facing the survivors was the lack of food. The small cache of chocolate bars, crackers and jam quickly disappeared. With no rescue in sight, or even probable since the Chilean government had called off the search, it was clear that without some kind of food they would die. A collective decision was made to eat the dead. Although today this is a well-known event, Canessa says the world sees it in simplistic terms; that the Old Christians struggle is often reduced to cannibalism. The real story, he says, is much more complex.

As we waited for a game to start at the Old Christian's home pitch between two under 19's sides, Roberto gathered his thoughts. Leaning against the truck, all decked out in the Old Christians team flag, complete with a giant green Shamrock, he continued:

“Unless you have faced such difficult circumstances it is impossible to really understand the desire to stay alive, almost at any cost,” he said. “Of course the food decision was horrible, repugnant. When it came into our minds we thought we were going crazy. But my main problem at the time was taking advantage of my dead friends. I couldn’t ask them. Then I thought that if I died I would be proud that my friends would use my body and I would be part of a living project, part of the rescue even after death.”

All images ©Doug McKinlay

On December 10th, the 62nd day after the crash, Roberto Canessa and his fellow Old Christian, Nando Parrado, began a march through some of the world’s harshest terrain in a bid to reach civilisation. Ten days later, with the last of their energy reserves drained, they made it to the green foothills of the Chilean Andes and the safety of a shepherd’s hut. Of the 45 people who left on October 13, only 16 survived, five of who were Old Christians rugby players.

More than 40 years later the determination to fight against the odds still gleams in Canessa’s eye. His passion for his rugby club has never died; his experience in the Andes only added to its strength. A strength that is evident as he offers valuable advice to the young rugby players at the half time break for the Under-19’s game.

Today he is the president of the Old Christians organisation, a position he was elected to more for his obstinacy than anything else, he says. And although his David versus Goliath fight with the Andes is well behind him he applies what he learned not only to his rugby club but also to every aspect of his life.

“I am a paediatric cardiologist and like the mountain it’s a battle between life and death,” he said. “I watched some of my friends die up there, watched others struggle to stay alive. It’s the same with these kids. Some unfortunately don’t make it. But they all fight to survive. And for me as a doctor now, it’s like I am on the field playing rugby again with the Old Christians. This time however instead of my college friends, my team is other doctors and nurses.”

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