In 1972, a plane full of rugby players crashed in the Andes, and the survivors took to cannibalism to survive. One of them visited Kolkata for Durga Puja and was mesmerised
Does anyone remember the TV series `Lost’? It talks about a plane crash on a desert island. That was simply reeled life. But when a group of boys were lost in real life, in a remote snow-filled mountain at 14,000 ft following a plane crash, the world outside presumed them to be dead. It was one such rarest occasion when real life thoroughly beat the reel life.
Left with a dilemma that was too shocking and also too real whether to court a slow, painful death or turn cannibals and prise open bodies of their dead friends and eat them for bare survival 16 out of the 45 passengers on board opted for the second and handed death a deserving defeat, surviving on human flesh for nearly two months. Their formidable opponents were the cold, 30 degrees below zero, and a complete absence of supplies.
Meet Gustavo Zerbino, now 66, who was part of the rugby team from Uruguay travelling aboard the ill-fated flight and one among the 16 to have shaken hands with death from close.
Zerbino was here in Kolkata during the Durga Puja to witness the grand four-day festival as well as well as relive the gruesome, sordid tale of the stark fight for the life of those hapless victims of the crash. His tale will shock, amaze and chill the nerves down the spine; nevertheless, at the end, it equally speaks of the victory of the human grit, courage and determination.
Zerbino, part of the rugby team from Uruguay, some of their friends and family members were en route from Montevideo to Santiago in Chile for a planned rugby match, when their chartered aircraft, Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, went down in a mountainous border region between Chile and Argentina on October 13, 1972, in what is often called The Valley of Tears. Of the 45 aboard, 12 died in the crash and several others succumbed to cold and injury. Of the 27 who were still alive after the crash, eight were buried alive in an avalanche that swept their shelter. The last 16 fought a grim battle and miraculously survived by eating the frozen bodies of their dead friends and relatives. They were finally rescued on December 22, 1972, after being isolated for more than 72 days. Numerous books have been written on the disaster; some of the survivors went on to pen memoirs and years later, Hollywood, of course, didn’t lose the chance to do a film, “Alive” on it.
Zerbino, who has been mesmerised by the glitz and glamour surrounding the Durga Puja in the city, was hardly a 19-year-old rugby player when the disaster struck him. In the intervening years following the rescue, he became one of the leading doctors of Uruguay. Gustavo’s other assignments include advising executives on how to take decisions during the most trying moments and situations in life. Because the lessons he learnt on the mountain, never left him.
Asked to recollect some of the horrid moments he had passed in the Andes Mountain pass during the 72-day ordeal, he flashed a broad smile and took his audience straight into that moment. “The pilot made a huge mistake and warned us just about a turbulence ahead. He thought he was moving towards Santiago, while the aircraft was high in the Andes Mountain. As the wings got severed and we crashed, I was almost thrown out of my seat. I could hear screams of my friends; my vision was blurred, still, I could see a piece of metal sticking out of the stomach of a guy and his brains tumbled out.”
The crash gave Gustavo and 15 other survivors some basic lessons in life. “Everyone of us played a role and helped each other to live. Shivering in the cold, we skinned the seats of the plane that had a woollen fabric. To shut the cold out, we put all the suitcases at the back of the fuselage. From the plastic screen in the pilot’s cabin, sunglasses were made to protect our eyes. Seat bottoms were torn open to make snowshoes and hammocks were built for those with broken legs.”
But it must have been painful to do what they did? “Well, it was indeed so; we all wept as we discussed first about it. At the same time, we knew human flesh had energy which we desperately needed to survive and climb mountains and reach the plains… Most of us lost more than 20 kgs and we needed to eat at least…all of us, you know.”
On one of the darkest nights, they collectively toyed with the option of a mass suicide. “It was again very hard, as we had the common religious taboos. The first step was the most difficult one, but then you keep walking.”
One lesson Gustavo wouldn’t ever like to forget. Immediately after the crash, rugby teammate Nando Parrado went into a coma and was shunted aside and left with his head resting on ice. The freezing cold treated his severe cerebral oedema and he revived to play a critical role in the rescue operation.
Father of four kids, when he looks at hindsight, Gustavo might as well keep singing poet John Donne’s celebrated lines the rest of his life: “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee/ Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.
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