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The Story of the Andes Survivors
By Piers Paul Read
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1974 Piers Paul Read
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Uruguay, one of the smallest countries on the South American continent, was founded on the eastern bank of the River Plate as a buffer state between the emerging giants of Brazil and Argentina. Geographically it was a pleasant land, with cattle running wild over immense pasturelands, and its population lived modestly either as merchants, doctors and lawyers in the city of Montevideo or as proud and restless gauchos on the range.
The history of the Uruguayans in the nineteenth century is filled first with fierce battles for their independence against Argentina and Brazil and then with equally savage civil skirmishes between the Blanco and Colorado parties, the Conservatives from the interior and the Liberals from Montevideo. In 1904 the last Blanco uprising was defeated by the Colorado president, José Batlle y Ordóñez, who then established a secular and democratic state which for many decades was regarded as the most advanced and enlightened in South America.
The economy of this welfare state depended upon the pastoral and agricultural products which Uruguay exported to Europe, and while world prices for wool, beef and hide remained high, Uruguay remained prosperous; but in the course of the 1950s the value of these commodities went down and Uruguay went into a decline. There was unemployment and inflation, which in turn gave rise to social discontent. The civil service was overstaffed and underpaid; lawyers, architects, and engineers – once the aristocracy of the nation – found themselves with little work and were paid too little for what there was. Many were compelled to choose secondary professions. Only those who owned land in the interior could be sure of their prosperity. The rest worked for what they could get in an atmosphere of economic stagnation and administrative corruption.
As a result, there arose the first and most notable movement of urban guerrilla revolutionaries, the Tupamaros, whose ambition was to bring down the oligarchy which governed Uruguay through the Blanco and Colorado parties. For a while things went their way. They kidnapped and ransomed officials and diplomats and infiltrated the police force, which was set against them. The government called upon the army, which ruthlessly uprooted these urban guerrillas from their middleclass homes. The movement was suppressed; the Tupamaros were locked away.
In the early 1950s a group of Catholic parents, alarmed at the atheistic tendencies of the teachers in the state schools – and dissatisfied with the teaching of English by the Jesuits – invited the Irish Province of the Christian Brothers to start a school in Montevideo. This invitation was accepted, and five Irish lay brothers came out from Ireland by way of Buenos Aires to found the Stella Maris College – a school for boys between the ages of nine and sixteen – in the suburb of Carrasco. In May 1955 classes were started in a house on the rambla which looked out under vast skies over the South Atlantic.
Though they spoke only halting Spanish, these Irish Brothers were well suited to the task they now sought to perform. Uruguay might be far from Ireland, but it too was a small country with an agricultural economy. The Uruguayans ate beef as the Irish ate potatoes, and life here, like life in Ireland, was led at a gentle pace. Nor was the structure of that part of Uruguayan society to which they catered unfamiliar to the Brothers. The families who lived in the pleasant modern houses built amid the pine trees of Carrasco – the most desirable suburb of Montevideo – were mostly large, and there were strong bonds between parents and children which persisted through adolescence into maturity. The affection and respect which the boys felt for their parents was readily transferred to their teachers. This proved enough to maintain good behaviour and, at the request of the parents of their pupils, the Christian Brothers gave up their long-standing use of the disciplinary cane.
It was also customary in Uruguay for young men and women to live with their parents even after they had left school, and it was not until they got married that they left home. The Christian Brothers often asked themselves how it was that, in a world where acrimony between generations sometimes seemed to be the spirit of the age, the citizens of Uruguay – or at least the residents of Carrasco – should be spared this conflict. It was as if the torrid vastness of Brazil to the north and the muddy waters of the River Plate to the south and west acted not only as natural barriers but as a protective shell in a cocoon of time.
Not even the Tupamaros troubled the Stella Maris College. The pupils, who came from Catholic families with conservative inclinations, had been sent by their parents to the Christian Brothers because of this order's traditional methods and old-fashioned objectives. Political idealism was more likely to flourish under the Jesuits, who trained the intellect, than under the Christian Brothers, whose aim was to build the character of their boys – and the generous use of corporal punishment, which they had abandoned at the request of the parents, was not the only means to this end at their disposal. The other was rugby football.
When the Christian Brothers first came to Uruguay, rugby was hardly played there at all; indeed, they found themselves in a country where soccer was not just the national sport but a communal passion. Along with per capita consumption of beef, it was the only sphere in which Uruguay triumphed over the great nations of the world (they won the World Cup in 1930 and 1950), and to ask young Uruguayans to play a different game was like feeding them on bread and potatoes instead of their usual diet of beef.
Having sacrificed one pillar of their educational system in giving up the cane, the Christian Brothers were not going to give up the other. They held to their contention that soccer was a sport for the prima donna, whereas rugby football would teach the boys to suffer in silence and work as a team. The parents expostulated but they acquiesced, and in time they even came to share the opinion of the Christian Brothers as to the merits of the game.
As for their sons, they played it with growing enthusiasm, and when the first generation had passed through the school, many of the graduates were unwilling to give up either rugby or the Stella Maris College. The idea of an old boys' group of alumni was conceived, and in 1965, ten years after the foundation of the school, this association came into being. It was called the Old Christians' Club, and its chief activity was playing rugby on a Sunday afternoon.
As the years passed, these games became popular – even fashionable – and each summer brought new members to the Old Christians' Club and a wider choice of players for a better team. Rugby itself caught on in Uruguay, and the Old Christians' first fifteen, with the shamrock on their shirts, became one of the best teams in the country. In 1968 they won the Uruguayan national championship, and again in 1970. Ambition grew with success. The team made a trip across the estuary of the River Plate to play teams in Argentina, and in 1971 they made up their minds to go farther afield and play in Chile. To make this possible and not too expensive, the club chartered a plane from the Uruguayan Air Force to fly them from Montevideo to Santiago, and tickets for seats not required by the team were sold to their friends and supporters. The trip was a great success. The team played the Chilean national team and the first fifteen of the Old Boys Grange, winning one match and losing the other. At the same time, they had a short holiday in a foreign land. For many it was their first journey abroad and their first sight of the snow-covered peaks and glacial valleys of the Andes. Indeed, the trip was such a success that no sooner had they returned to Montevideo than they planned to go again the following year.
By the end of the next season, considerable doubt surrounded their plans. The first fifteen of the Old Christians had, through overconfidence, lost the Uruguayan championship to a team they considered inferior; as a result, some of the club's officers thought that they did not deserve another trip to Chile. Another problem they faced was filling the forty-odd seats of the Fairchild F-227 which they had chartered from the Air Force. The cost of hiring the plane was US $1,600. If forty seats were filled, it would only cost each passenger around $40 to fly to Santiago and back – less than a third of the commercial fare. The more seats that remained empty, the more it would cost each passenger, and they still had to meet the expenses of five days in Chile.
Word went around that the trip might have to be cancelled, whereupon those who wanted to go began to look for recruits among their friends, relations and fellow students. There were various arguments for going to Chile. For the serious-minded students of economics there was the experiment in democratic Marxism under President Allende; for the less earnest there was the promise of high living at a low price. The Chilean escudo was weak; the dollar fetched a high price on the black market, and, as a sports delegation, the Old Christians would not be obliged to exchange their money at the official rate. The rugby players tempted their friends with visions of the pretty and uninhibited Chilean girls on the beaches of Viña del Mar or at the ski resort of Portillo. The net was cast wide, drawing in the mother and sister of one boy, the older cousins of another. By the day when the money had to be delivered to the Air Force, they had sold enough tickets to cover the cost.
At around six on the morning of Thursday, October 12, 1972, the passengers began to arrive in small groups at Carrasco airport for the second Old Christians' trip to Chile. They were driven in cars or pickup trucks by parents and girl friends, and their vehicles were parked beneath the palm trees outside the airport building, which, surrounded by large tracts of well-cut grass, looked more like the clubhouse of a golf course than an international airport. In spite of the early hour and the bleary looks on their faces, the boys were dressed smartly in slacks and sports coats, and they greeted one another with great spirit and excitement. The parents, too, all seemed to know one another. With fifty or sixty people talking and laughing together, it was almost as if someone had chosen the foyer of the airport to throw a party.
Calm amid all this confusion stood the two somewhat stocky figures of Marcelo Pérez, the captain of the first fifteen, and Daniel Juan, the president of the Old Christians, who had come to see them off. Pérez looked decidedly happy. It was he who had been most enthusiastic about this trip to Chile and he who had suffered most at the prospect of its cancellation. Even now that it was taking place, the brow beneath his balding head would wrinkle as some problem was brought to his attention. One such problem was the absence of Gilberto Regules. The boy had not met his friends at the appointed time; he had not come to the airport; and now, when they telephoned his home, there was no reply.
Marcelo knew they could not wait for long. Their departure had to be early in the morning because it was dangerous to fly through the Andes in the afternoon when the warm air of the Argentine plains rose to clash with the cold air of the mountains; already, the Fairchild had taxied across the tarmac from the military base which adjoined the civilian airport.
The boys milling around seemed a motley collection, ranging in age from eighteen to twenty-six, but they had more in common than met the eye. Most of them were Old Christians; and most of those who were not had been to the Jesuit College of the Sacred Heart in the centre of Montevideo. Besides the team and its supporters, there were their friends, cousins of friends, and fellow students from the faculties of law, agriculture, economics and architecture in which many of the Old Christians were now studying. Three of the boys were medical students, two of whom played on the team. Some of them had neighbouring ranches in the interior; many more were neighbours in Carrasco, for what they all had in common was their class and their religion. They were, almost without exception, from the more prosperous section of the community, and all were Roman Catholic.
Not all the passengers who checked in at the desk of the Uruguayan Military Transport were Old Christians or even young men. There was a plump middleaged woman, Señora Mariani, who had bought a ticket from the Air Force to go to her daughter's marriage to a political exile in Chile. There were two middle-aged couples and a tall pleasant-looking girl of around twenty named Susana Parrado, who stood in the queue with her mother, her brother Nando, and her father, who had come to see them off.
When their baggage had been checked in, the Parrados went up to the airport restaurant which overlooked the runway and ordered breakfast. At another table, a little distance from the Parrados, sat two students of economics who wore scruffier clothes than the rest, as if to show that they were socialists – a contrast to Susana Parrado, who wore a beautiful fur-lined coat made from antelope skin which she had bought only the day before.
Eugenia Parrado, her mother, had been born in the Ukraine, and both Susana and her brother were exceptionally tall, with fine, brownish-blond hair, blue eyes, and soft, round Russian faces. Neither could have been called glamorous. Nando was gangling, nearsighted, and somewhat shy; Susana, while youthful and sweet in appearance and with a fine figure, had an earnest, unflirtatious expression on her face.
While she drank her coffee, the flight was called. The Parrados, the two socialists, and everyone else in the restaurant went down to the departure lounge and then passed through customs and passport control and out onto the tarmac. There they saw the shining white plane which was to take them to Chile. They climbed up an aluminium ladder to the door at the front of the fuselage, filed into the confined cabin, and filled up the seats, which were placed in pairs on either side of the aisle.
At 8.05 a.m. the Fairchild, No. 571 of the Uruguayan Air Force, took off from Carrasco airport for Santiago de Chile, loaded with forty passengers, five crewmen, and their luggage. The pilot and commander of the plane was Colonel Julio César Ferradas. He had served in the Air Force for more than twenty years, had 5,117 hours of flying experience, and had flown over the treacherous cordillera de los Andes twenty-nine times. His copilot, Lieutenant Dante Hector Lagurara, was older than Ferradas but not as experienced. He had once had to parachute out of a T-33 jet and was now flying the Fairchild under the eyes of Ferradas to gain extra experience, as was the custom in the Uruguayan Air Force.
The plane he was flying – the Fairchild F-227 – was a twin-engined turboprop manufactured in the United States and bought by the Uruguayan Air Force only two years earlier. Ferradas himself had flown it down from Maryland. Since then it had only logged 792 hours: by aeronautical standards it was as good as new. If there was any doubt in the pilots' minds, it did not concern the qualities of the plane but rather the notoriously treacherous currents of air in the Andes. Only twelve or thirteen weeks before, a four-engined cargo plane with a crew of six, half of whom were Uruguayans, had disappeared in the mountains.
The flight plan filed by Lagurara was to take the Fairchild direct from Montevideo to Santiago by way of Buenos Aires and Mendoza, a distance of around nine hundred miles. The Fairchild cruised at about 240 knots; it would therefore take them approximately four hours, the last half hour of which would be over the Andes. By leaving at eight, however, the pilots expected to reach the mountains before noon and avoid the dangerous postmeridianal turbulence. All the same, they worried about the crossing, because the Andes, though less than a hundred miles wide, rise to an average height of 13,000 feet, with peaks as high as 20,000 feet; one mountain, Aconcagua, which lies between Mendoza and Santiago, rises to 22,834 feet, the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere and only about 6,000 feet short of Mount Everest.
Excerpted from Alive by Piers Paul Read. Copyright © 1974 Piers Paul Read. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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