05/15/2006 at 01:00 AM EDT
A little past 8 a.m. on Oct. 12, 1972, my team, the Old Christians Rugby Club of Uruguay, took off from Montevideo to play a match in Santiago, Chile. There were 45 people aboard the twin-engine F-227, most of them friends and family—like my mother, Eugenia, and 19-year-old sister, Susy. It was supposed to be a 3 ½-hour flight, but bad weather forced us to layover in the Argentine city of Mendoza. We took off again the next day, and through the fog I could see the snow-capped Andes rising as high as 22,000 feet. Everyone seemed in a lively mood. Somebody threw me a rugby ball—I passed it forward. Some people played cards with the plane's steward—until he shouted, "Please take your seats!"
I felt four sharp bumps. Across the aisle my mother and sister looked worried—they were holding hands. As the engines screamed and the plane shook violently, our eyes met. Then I heard the wrenching sound of tearing metal. The last thing I remember was the roof opening like a sardine can; an icy wind lashed my face and tore my seat from the floor. The fuselage broke apart, spilling people into the air, then came down, tobogganing until it smashed against piled snow and ice. Amid the screams, tangled bodies, seats and luggage, I was unconscious (with four skull fractures). They thought I was a goner and laid me in the snow with the dead.
I lay three days at the crash site then woke up—very slowly. I asked, "Where's my mother? Where's Susy?" There was no room for niceties. Another survivor said, "Your mother is dead and your sister is near death. She's lying at the front of the fuselage." Despite my grief, a voice in my head said not to cry because I'd lose salt and water.
In conditions like that, you're transformed, like an animal in the wild. I crawled over to Susy. I didn't even know if she was aware of me. I rubbed her frozen feet, put snow to her lips. For two days I held her; then her breathing stopped. She was still. I cried her name, gave her mouth-to-mouth. It was too late. I held her all night, then buried her next to my mother in the snow. I have never felt so alone.
Now the main thing was to survive that sub-zero hell. We huddled inside the fuselage, going outside only in the few hours when sunshine warmed the metal of the aircraft—which we used to melt snow for water. We tried to keep our spirits up by telling stories. But in the days after the crash, it was obvious we would starve. There was no life on the glacier. No birds, grass, nothing. We'd eaten all the snacks and candy in the wreckage. I remember my last bit of food, a chocolate peanut. I sucked on it for hours. We even tried eating strips of leather from the luggage. Then my mind crossed the line. Staring at a boy's leg wound I felt my appetite growing—I could taste the crust of dried blood at the edges. I'd actually looked at human flesh as food. I whispered to my friend Carlitos Paez, "Our friends don't need their bodies anymore." "God help us," Carlitos said, "I've been thinking the same thing."
So had some of the others. For an afternoon, we debated. Roberto Canessa, a medical student, said we'd die without protein. With broken glass, several of us sliced strips of frozen flesh off the bodies. The rest of us didn't know whom we ate, though out of kindness, no one touched my mother or sister. When I ate my first piece, it had no taste. I forced myself to swallow—without guilt. I was eating to live.
Eleven days after the crash, through the static of a battered transistor, a voice declared that authorities had canceled the search for us. We were stunned; some of us wept or screamed. Then a few days later, on the night of Oct. 29—disaster: An avalanche thundered down on the fuselage. Of 29 people inside, 27 of us were trapped, buried so deeply we were suffocating. Furiously, the guys who could move worked to uncover the guys next to them. I was the last one. I couldn't breathe. I knew I'd be dead in seconds, but felt oddly calm. I didn't see tunnels of light, no angels. Then I felt a hand scratch my face. "Nando! It's me!"
Eight men had died. Their flesh sustained us for eight weeks, but I knew we were doomed. I looked west and knew our only hope was to climb down into Chile for help. I asked Roberto to come with me. He was one of the strongest of us. "All right," he said, "we've done so much together—let's die together."
We left Dec. 12 and started to climb slowly toward the west, carrying strips of flesh to eat. At the summit, I expected to see the green valleys of Chile below; all I saw were snow-covered peaks in every direction. We were dead. But Roberto said, "Yes, but let's die going west." For days we inched up rock faces, sometimes stumbling down, hip-deep in snow. We found shelter on mountain ledges. It was excruciating; temperatures were easily 30 below. Eventually, we got low enough to see trees. We came to a narrow river, saw the rusty lid of a can, then piles of cow dung. Signs of life! When we camped our spirits were high. On the morning of Dec. 21, we saw three men across the river, sitting by a fire. I screamed to them; one man threw over a paper and pencil, tied to a rock. I wrote, saying who we were, and threw it back. Later that day a shepherd appeared on a mule. He gave us bread and cheese, brought us to his shack, fed us stew and laughed as we kept refilling our plates. We fell onto cots and slept.
The next day the alpine rescuers arrived. They couldn't believe we had crossed the Andes over 60 or 70 miles of the most extreme terrain in the world. Within hours I guided the first of two helicopters to the crash site where my 14 joyous friends were saved. At the hospital in Santiago I embraced my father and sister Graciela, all of us in tears. When I told them about Mother and Susy, I felt my father's shoulders sag. He asked how we survived, what did we eat, and I told him the truth. He said, "You did what you had to do."
I spent months at loose ends, clubbing, dating. I was recognized everywhere, and attracted beautiful women I couldn't have before. An auto racing fanatic, I enrolled at England's top driving school and became a professional, but stopped when I married my wife, Veronique, a TV anchor, in 1979. We have two grown daughters.
Today we produce and host five TV shows—on travel, car racing, current events and nature. I have a mission. I know death. I saw it in the mountains. My duty now is to urge people to live every moment. Don't waste a breath.