Abandoned in the unforgiving, frozen wasteland of the Andes Mountains, 22-year-old Fernando Parrado was certain he was going to die.
Even now, 45 years after the plane crash disaster that killed 29 people and led him and the 15 other survivors to resort to eating the corpses of their dead friends to survive for 72 days in the Andes, Parrado remembers the feeling of despair and his absolute certainty that he would not make it.
"There was no way out. No way," Parrado tells DailyMail.com.
"Until the last minute of the 72nd day, I thought I was going to die. When you are condemned to die for such a long time, fear does not go away. I was so afraid I wanted to vomit every day because I had a cramp in my stomach because I was dead. I was a walking dead man. Hope only prolonged the agony."
Parrado, who goes by Nando, and 44 others from Montevideo, Uruguay, were flying to Chile on Friday, October 13, 1972, when their plane crashed in the middle of the Andes Mountains, miles from civilisation. Most of the passengers were part of a rugby club team along with friends and family of the players, who had chartered the Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, so they could play matches in Santiago.
By the end of their second day on the mountain, 17 people had died from their injuries, including Parrado's mother and his best friend. Eight days later his younger sister died in his arms. By the time they were rescued after Parrado and another rugby player, Roberto Canessa, found help after 10 days of climbing out of the mountains only 16 survivors were left.
With few warm clothes and no real equipment or food to speak of, the survivors had to use their ingenuity and the remnants of the wrecked plane, a Fairchild FH-227D, to stay alive. They tore off the covers from the plane seats to make blankets for warmth in the freezing temperatures and made contraptions from foil inside the seats to melt ice for drinking water.
Most necessary was their decision to eat the bodies of their friends who had died.
"Hunger is the most primitive fear of the human being," Parrado says. "Not knowing when you are going to eat again is the most incredible fear a human being can have. And then when your body starts to feed upon itself, everything that you have inside is turned into energy and you feel it and that is killing you.
'"And I said, 'Man, I am dying. I am dying. I'll be dead in three, four, five, six, 10 days. I'll be dead'. But you're not dead. And you're a human being and you think and say, okay, what do I do now? And I said, 'Okay, the only food that we have are the dead bodies of our friends and the crew. That's what we have.' And that's – when you have one option, you take one option. If you have two options, you can analyse and decide. But if there's only one… it's not a mystery, it's not complicated. It's easier than you think because it's the only option."
Parrado, now 67, talks about the crash as a matter of fact, simply as one horrible event in the midst of an otherwise fulfilling life. If anything, he talks about the experience with some cynicism, but he isn't traumatised. As he speaks, his voice is calm and confident and he affirms "there is nothing I cannot say" about the disaster of 45 years ago.
"It doesn't rule my day by any means – or my life by any means. I am very pragmatic," he says. "I was educated by my father who was the king of pragmatism. And as soon as I came out of that ordeal, the first day, my father told me: 'Look Nando, there's no way you can change the past. This is not going to be the most important thing in your life. You have been born again. Don't destroy your second life. Have a life.'
"And that's what I've been doing, having a life. So I don't dream, I don't have nightmares. Since the first night that I spent in the hospital [after being rescued] until last night, I never had one single second of an image of what happened to me while I sleep. Of course sometimes I think about it but only usually if I face something that looks a little bit important or a little bit difficult, I say, Jesus man, this compared to that? Well this is a joke.'"
Parrado has certainly moved on and lived an entire lifetime since the plane crash, but when he talks about it now, he sometimes says "over there", as if the spot where the plane crashed is just around the corner or somewhere he can easily point to.
"Over there, at that altitude, it's like being in the moon or Venus or Mars," he says. "There's nothing. Absolutely nothing. And when I mean nothing, there is nothing. It's not like the Rockies, you know, where you can have a town or you can see trees once in a while. Over there, there's nothing."
Today, Parrado lives in Montevideo and is a successful television producer and the president of the prosperous hardware store chain his father Seler Parrado started in 1958. Parrado has been married to Veronique, 58, for 37 years. They have two daughters, aged 34 and 32 and two grandchildren, aged 4 and 6.
Though he speaks with authority and confidence today, he was not always so self-assured. Born the middle of three children to loving parents Seler and Ukrainian-born Eugenia in Montevideo, Parrado was slightly shy and awkward.
He says he was an average student, mostly interested in cars, playing sports and chasing girls. He and his best friend Francisco "Panchito" Abal did almost everything together, though the charming, outgoing Abal was more successful than his gangly and somewhat timid friend.
The two also played rugby together with the Old Christians Club, a Montevideo team. Abal was one of the team's best players as a wing three-quarter and the tall and tough Parrado was a forward in the second line of the scrum. So when the team was going to play a few matches in Chile in 1972, the two best friends were on the October 12 flight.
To afford the chartered flight, the team needed to fill the plane, so players convinced family and friends to travel with them for a short holiday in Chile. Among those asked along were Parrado's mother and younger sister. The team had done the same trip the year before, so there was no need for concern.
However, because of inclement weather on October 12, the pilots landed the Fairchild in Argentina before crossing the Andes and the team's excursion was postponed for the night.
On the afternoon of October 13, 1972, Flight 571 took off from Mendoza, Argentina, and flew south to a specific pass in the Andes Mountains that was low enough for the Fairchild to pass through. While they were still in the middle of the Andes, the pilots misjudged where they were and started to land, thinking they were already in Chile.
According to the 1974 book Alive by Piers Paul Read, the plane's right wing hit the side of a mountain, broke off and cut off the tail of the plane. Two of the flight crew and three of the players buckled into their seats were sucked out of the back of the plane. After that, the left wing of the plane also broke off.
What was left of the plane landed in a valley at a speed of about 200 knots and two more boys were sucked out the back. The fuselage hit the ground at just the right angle, however, and slid down the slope until it stopped, causing the rows of seats inside the plane to break off and crush many of those who were sitting, including Parrado's mother Eugenia, who was crushed to death.
The Fairchild had landed in a remote area of the Andes at about 11,500 feet in Argentina, near the Chilean border. In the crash, 12 people – including those who had been sucked out of the plane – died and three more died the next day, including Parrado's best friend Panchito.
Parrado was knocked unconscious early on in the crash and was in a coma for the next two days with a head injury that the survivors initially thought was so serious it would soon kill him. However, he came to on their third day on the mountain. He was weak and confused, but otherwise okay.
He immediately took to caring for his younger sister Susana, 20, whom he affectionately called Susy. She was semi-conscious, calling for her mother, praying or sometimes singing. She had scratches on her face and her feet were frostbitten. Though they had no doctors on the plane, two medical students on board – Roberto Canessa and Gustavo Zerbino – believed she also suffered severe internal injuries.
Parrado stayed with her, warming her feet with his hands, bringing her water, embracing her and comforting her as best he could. One afternoon, as he was embracing her, her breathing slowed to a stop. Though he tried desperately to revive her, his sister was gone, leaving 27 survivors.
It was their eighth day on the mountain.
The next morning, Parrado buried his sister in the snow outside the fuselage, though he was unable to mourn her the way he had wanted to.
"I think if that would have happened in the city, it would have been extremely difficult to cope with. Over there, you are so strained or so pushed by the circumstances and by survival that you do not have the strength to be sad.
"I discovered something over there. I discovered anger, anger like something I have never felt before. Probably anger also gave me some strength. Anger because I buried my mother with my hands. I buried my sister, I buried my friends and I couldn't feel anything. I couldn't cry, I couldn't feel sorrow, I couldn't feel anything.
"I said: 'Nando, who the hell are you? What happened to you?' and I became very angry because I didn't understand myself. I should be crying, I should be suffering and I can't.
"But I think survival mode, it tolls itself on your brain and it doesn't leave space for that because if not, you cannot fight against survival, against the cold, the hunger. So your brain, by itself… I think the brain rejects the thoughts that can harm your survival. And I became very angry with myself because I couldn't feel anything.
"I am burying my family with my hands. We didn't have shovels, we didn't have anything," he says. "My friends, I'm closing their eyelids with my hands like in the movies, you know? And I couldn't feel anything and I was very angry with myself. I was very angry. But life goes on."
On his way back to the plane after burying Susy, Parrado was hit with the reality of the situation. Though he had been aware of the dire circumstances he and his fellow survivors were in, caring for his sister distracted him and kept his mind off the overwhelming horrors around him. In that moment, he says in his memoir, he knew for certain he was going to die.
"I remember the fear of dying," Parrado says. "I didn't want to die and I was going to die. People ask me, how does that feel? And there's no way you can explain. How can you explain? Just imagine that because of something that you did, you are going to be put on the electric chair. How do you feel when they tie your arms to the chair? It's not a good feeling. Well I felt that for 72 days and 72 nights. I felt those mountains were stealing away from me my life. But I was still breathing."
Even before that moment, Parrado had become obsessed with the idea of escaping, but now the desire to leave burned more fully. The other survivors had hope they would be found and rescued, but early on, Parrado knew he would have to escape if he wanted to survive and get back to his father, which he wanted more than anything else.
"I saw the script of what was going to happen and I said, man, this is going to be hell. We are going to die. This is horrible. This is absolutely horrible. But I do not want to die. I want to go back to my father. I want to live. I don't want the mountains to steal away from me this life that I have. I want to experience love, I want to experience a family. I want to live. I'm still breathing, I want to live. And in order to live, I had to get out of here."
The day after the crash, the rugby team captain, Marcelo Perez, had taken inventory of everything edible on the plane. According to Read's book Alive, for the initial 28 survivors, there were: three bottles of wine, a bottle of whiskey, a half-drunk hip flask of whiskey, a bottle of cherry brandy, a bottle of creme de menthe, eight bars of chocolate, five bars of nougat, a packet of salted crackers, two cans of mussels, one can of salted almonds, one small jar each of peach, apple and blackberry jam, caramels that had been scattered across the floor of the cabin and dates and dried plums that had also been scattered.
Though Perez kept the rations small to make them last longer, their miniscule diet of chocolate and wine did little to sustain the athletic boys. They tried other sources of food, looking into the seat cushions hoping for straw but finding only foam and attempting to eat lichens from the only sun-exposed rock near the Fairchild, which had no nourishment at all.
There was no vegetation to speak of in the wasteland of the Andes and by the time Susy died on their eighth day, the 27 remaining survivors could feel their bodies wasting away. Many had already come to the conclusion that if they were going to survive, they were going to have to eat the bodies of their dead friends, though they only discussed it in smaller groups until Roberto Canessa initiated an open conversation on the topic.
That night, their 10th night on the mountain, a meeting was called with all 27 survivors - 26 boys and men and one woman. They all agreed that if they were going to survive, at least some of them were going to have to climb out of the mountains. To do that, they were going to have to eat something to gain back their strength, but of course, the only sources of food available were the bodies of their friends.
"I know that anybody in this situation would have come to the same conclusion at the same time," Parrado says. "Imagine that the room that you are in catches fire and there's only one door. Where do you run to?"
Some had a harder time with the idea than others, but they all agreed that if they were to die, they would want their bodies to be used for food so the others could survive.
"We made a pact, 27 of us," Parrado says. "We said, okay, if I die, use my body so at least one of us can get out of here and tell our families how much we love them. So we did one of the most beautiful things. We donated our bodies in complete consciousness and that's what happened.
"Whenever I see my daughters and my grandchildren and I look into their eyes and I embrace them, I say they are alive because of what we decided that night in the middle of the summits of the cold Andes."
After they made that promise, some still couldn't come around to actually eating flesh at the time, but all came around eventually. Parrado was among the first group who ate flesh after Canessa had cut small sections for the group.
"It's incredibly tough to do it," Parrado says. "But it's incredibly fascinating, in a way, how humans as a species, we get used to horrors and horrible things. We get used to surviving in concentration camps. We get used to torture, surviving in incredible situations. Humans go through horrible things and we survive.
"It's incredible how humans get used to horrible things. How fast. And for us, fighting against the cold and the thirst was harder than eating what we were eating. Once you solve a problem, you go on. Now we have to do the other things."
Those "other things" primarily focused on escaping the mountains, since the possibility of being rescued diminished with every day. Since many of the survivors were injured and others were weaker than the others, only a few were selected to be "expeditionaries" as they called them, to cross the mountains.
However, their plans for escape were paused on the night of October 29 when an avalanche buried the fuselage where they were sleeping. Parrado woke to being covered in snow and for a moment believed he was going to die before one of the other boys dug him out. However, eight others died that night, including team captain Marcelo Perez and Liliana Methol, the last surviving woman. er husband Javier lived.
The avalanche and an ensuing blizzard left the 19 survivors trapped inside the plane for three days before they were able to make it out again.
When they finally were able to get out on November 1, several "expeditions" were attempted with small groups. They trekked to the east, hoping to find an Argentinian village, but were only able to make it to the tail section of the plane. The final, successful trip to the west wouldn't set out until December 12, three days after Parrado turned 23.
In the meantime, three other survivors died from illnesses and the injuries they sufferedn. Arturo Nogueira died on November 15, Rafael Echevarren died on November 18 and Numa Turcatti died on December 11.
"In a survival situation of this magnitude, nothing gets better," Parrado says. "Nothing gets better. Everything gets worse and worse and worse and worse until you die, or you are rescued or you rescue yourself. You're afraid until you die."
He adds: "It's not a romantic thing. It's not an adventure with a good ending. It's not an adventure. It's hell."
Parrado, Canessa and Vizintin set out for the final expedition on December 12, their 61st day on the mountain. By that time, the survivors were running out of meat and they knew this would be their final chance to get out of the mountains.
To go west, the three "expeditionaries" had to climb a mountain they would later find out was almost 5200m high, one of the tallest and steepest in the Andes. Parrado was the first to reach the top on their third day and he named it Mt Seler after his father, before climbing back down to spend the night on the side they climbed up.
That night, they decided Vizintin would return to the fuselage the next morning so Canessa and Parrado would have more food for the rest of their journey, which they believed would take longer than they initially expected.
Though it was a difficult journey that felt impossible, Parrado was driven by his deep love for his father.
"I wanted to go back to my father," he says. "I could imagine my father going through despair having lost most of his family in one second.
"I could imagine him suffering back at home and I said, 'Jesus, if I am still alive I have to go back to him and tell him that I'm not dead'. Probably that gave me a lot of strength, a lot of power inside my mind because I didn't have too much strength physically."
He adds: "Because, when you're in front of a firing squad that only thing that matters in life is love and the love for the people that you care about. All the rest is bulls***, I can assure you."
With no previous experience or equipment, Parrado and Canessa managed to climb the dangerous mountains for 10 days after leaving the Fairchild, avoiding serious accidents or injuries. On the 10th day, they met a Chilean farmer who called the authorities and brought the boys to his hut to give them food. The next day, December 22, helicopters were brought to the mountains.
Despite the nerves he felt at flying through the Andes again, Parrado went with one of the helicopters to guide them to the crash site where the remaining 14 boys had been waiting almost without hope. Only six boys could be picked up on the first trip and because of poor weather conditions, the helicopters could not return that night. The last eight survivors had to spend one final night on the mountain with a small team of medics and mountaineers who stayed with them.
They were finally rescued the next morning, December 23, and were taken to a hospital in Santiago, Chile. Six of them were discharged immediately because though they were severely underweight, there was nothing else wrong with them.
Roy Harley, Javier Methol, Jose Luis "Coche" Inciarte and Alvaro Mangino had to remain in hospital because they were in worse condition than the others and were released on Christmas Eve. Though two of the boys had already returned to Montevideo, the rest celebrated Christmas together with their families at a hotel in Santiago.
Once he and the others returned to Montevideo, Parrado decided to do what he had always wanted to do: race cars. He raced in Europe for several years where he met Veronique, whom he married in 1979. He then went on to help run his father's business and also become a television producer and a motivational speaker.
"I have a family now, which I wouldn't have if the crash hadn't happened," he says. "So I cannot go back and put on a balance, which family was better – the one I had before or the one I have now. You know, it's an insane conclusion to go there. It's an insane thought, so I don't go there.
"The only thing that exists for me is the present time," he adds. "The past, it's already gone and the future, it's a fog. Everybody lives in the future and imagines a future that might never happen. Or it might be even better than what you imagined, but they stopped living in the present and they forget to live in the present. Which is the only thing that exists.
"When I was buried under an avalanche, the only thing I could think is, I am breathing. I am alive. There was no future, there was not an hour from now, two hours from now, next month, next week, it didn't exist. And I survived thinking on my present, on what I was doing every single second.
"So I think you can push yourself, but enjoy life because you are alive I saw [death], I felt it. It embraced me and I spat in her face. So now I allow myself to do things and say things that few people can."
In 2006, 34 years after the crash, Parrado published a memoir about his experience called Miracle in the Andes. He wrote the book for his father and gave it to him on his 90th birthday because Seler had been his primary motivation to escape from the mountains and it was he who taught Parrado to be practical, which helped him realise early on that he would have to eat human flesh in order to survive.
"Not a single person in this 45 years has come to us and said what you did was wrong," Parrado says. "We couldn't find anybody. My father said 'Probably, I would have done it earlier'."
Though Javier Methol died from cancer in 2015 at the age of 79, the other 15 survivors still meet every year on December 22 to celebrate their second lives. They remain good friends and are closely protective of one another.
"It's a party and celebration," Parrado says. "The good thing is that on the first year, we were 16 guys and two girlfriends and last year we were 140, with sons and grandchildren and sons-in-law and daughters-in-law and all that stuff. Only our direct family, we were like 140. So it's a story of love and life.
"Life is so beautiful," he adds. 'Even [with] suffering, life is beautiful. How can I say that? Because when you're dying and suffocating under an avalanche or you're dying abandoned to die without any hope and then you breathe again and you're alive and you go walk on the street, I'm happy."