Returning to the scene of the crash: A survivor of the Uruguayan rugby team plane crash reflects

I spent 72 days in the Andes mountains before we were rescued. This is what it's like to go back, years later

Published June 15, 2019 6:30PM (EDT)

The last eight survivors of the Uruguayan Air Force plane crash in the Andes in South America, huddle together in the craft's fuselage on their final night before rescue on Dec. 22, 1972. (AP Photo)
The last eight survivors of the Uruguayan Air Force plane crash in the Andes in South America, huddle together in the craft's fuselage on their final night before rescue on Dec. 22, 1972. (AP Photo)

Excerpted from " Out of the Silence: After the Crash " by Eduardo Strauch with Mireya Soriano, and translated by Jennie Erikson (AmazonCrossing, 2019). Reprinted with permission of AmazonCrossing.

In 2005, Ricardo Peña made the discovery of my jacket with my documents and wallet in the pocket, and my sunglasses as well, without the lenses, a few yards away. It was so unexpected and so unusual, which I saw as a suggestion that the moment had come for me to share my experience beyond the scope of my family and friends, to which it had always been restricted.

The fact that my belongings—which in some way represented my very identity, lying for decades exposed to the harsh weather of the mountain, as likely to be covered by snow as punished by the rain, the sun, and the wind—had surfaced in such an extraordinary way seemed to be an invitation to bring to light something that deserved to be shared, telling me that it had spent enough time in the silent permanence of the mountain.

Ricardo, who at that time didn’t know me personally, though he was familiar with our story, carried down my wallet and the other documents to send to me. When I received his call I was very grateful, but I couldn’t hide my disappointment that he hadn’t brought down my jacket as well, but had left it at the spot in accordance with the mountaineering ethic to leave found objects in their place. He responded that if that was my wish, he would go back on a future trip and try to find my jacket again, which at first didn’t seem an easy task.

In 2006 and 2007 Ricardo, who was by that time a good friend of mine, went back to search the area, but on both occasions the spot where he had found my belongings was covered in a thick layer of snow. On our expedition to the valley in 2008 he went back up the mountain to try again while I stayed down at the base camp.

I will never forget the joy I felt on hearing his news over the walkie-talkie:

“Eduardo, I found your coat!”

When he returned to camp with my coat, which I still recognized despite how threadbare and faded it was, I put it on with deep emotion, and that simple act was like starting a new beginning. The mountain had given me back my coat, as if to challenge my promise to it 35 years earlier that a part of me would always remain buried beneath its snows. It’s time, it seemed to say, to become unburied—time to share the many things I had learned from the silence of my mountain.

* * *

Everything that felt endless is now a part of the past—the clean, deeply empty hours, the heavy minutes when only the imperceptible movement of the minute hand proved that the watch had not stopped, the nights when between dreams we had the feeling that the shelter we were sleeping in was enormous, even though our bodies were piled up tightly against each other in the tiny space.

I find myself again in the magnificent backdrop of those powerful moments, which even then we knew we would never forget, and the little routines that I remember just as well; the daily work, efficient and organized; the ideas discussed quietly between us; the plans and backup plans, thinking about them over and over; the sudden attacks of fear and doubt; the praying of the rosary; the tears which were always one blink away but which I never allowed myself; the periods of surrender in the middle of despair; the laughter that followed a joke; renewed hope; the intense and unexpected states of spiritual fullness that started occurring more and more frequently.

I am now alone in that same place on the mountain where we had been ephemeral visitors, in that deep silence of the snow that for a time absorbed our voices.

Calls from one to another, still shocked and terrified after the echo of the crash, cries of pain and agony, names shouted from the darkness and the pressing urgency after the avalanche, the voices sounding broken with anguish and strangely distorted due to the tiny enclosure we had been buried in. These stand out like jagged needles in the throng of my memories, although time is slowly smoothing them and making the jagged edges less sharp, just as it does to the peaks of the mountains.

In this place for centuries upon centuries there had been no other sound besides the thundering landslides, the crashing of smaller rocks over the smooth and steep rock cliffs, the creaking of breaking ice, the whistling of the wind blowing with no obstacles in its path, perhaps a muffled earthquake or the brutal force of an avalanche. But in this slow world, which one day we were part of, any disturbances settle and it becomes peaceful again, and silence returns to rule its domain in the immutable serenity of the mountain. The equilibrium returns, inevitably. The storm ceases, the rocks roll to a stop, and the snow returns to its quietude after the fall. The volcano returns to its sleep of a thousand years.

On the other hand our intruding voices, faint but persistent, were the great exception in this ultimate solitude. So was the music of “Ave Maria,” a sublime result of human creation, which we heard one clear dawn in the mountain air. The melody that rang out in that superb natural amphitheater was the only thing to come close to matching its magnificent beauty. And we were there, too, not only as impassive witnesses. The landscape becomes complete with what arises in the human soul that contemplates it. We are no longer insignificant beings facing the void as long as our emotions make us participants in that immensity.

Sometimes, in the harshest of circumstances, our ability for awe remains. I remember how, in my brief and imprudent nightly trips outside the fuselage just after the crash, I stayed outside, staring at the mountain as it was at night, bathed in the soft azure glow of the stars. There was something unfathomable in its beauty, something capable of captivating me and making me feel so fulfilled that it was always an effort to cut that dialogue short. I didn’t want to leave it, but if I lingered too long out in the elements I could die.

In those 72 days the talks among the group had been growing steadily less animated and less frequent, little by little filtering out everything that was not absolutely necessary. There were whispers that almost always accompanied our brief wanderings as doomed ghosts. Quick and unimportant whispers in the midst of our everyday activity, requests, responses, brief exchanges, ideas coming and going like lightning flashes, conjectures, grunts of approval or of doubt, and also, in the calmest hours, slow and well-thought-out conversations, some of which I can still remember today in detail.

Words, so many words were extinguished one by one in the silence of the cordillera, which remains even now silent and unchanging in its illusion of eternity.

I look around this landscape, which has a hint of pristine purity in the gradual and imperceptible way the changes occur. The peaks where the plane hit are right there, just as dark and tall as they were then. The glacier where I now find myself and where the remains of the Fairchild are hidden grows and shrinks throughout the year in that circular time that marks the seasons. It grows and shrinks very slowly, as if it were breathing, and some metal parts from the plane that are visible seem untouched by the rust that grows on them with the slowness of centuries.

I have been sitting by myself next to the iron cross that marks the tomb of our friends. “Near, O God, to thee,” says the prayer inscribed on the cross, in barely legible letters, on one of its sides. And on the other: “The world to its Uruguayan brothers.” Several bronze plaques, small objects, rosaries, and messages around the cross speak of the many visits it has received from people around the world. I am immersed once again in this almost unchanged environment of total peace.

* * *

In January of 1973 a detachment of the Andean Relief Corps and a Chilean priest came to the site in helicopters to organize the burial of the bodies. I’m sure they could never have imagined then how much this site would be visited in the future.

The inaccessibility of the site would suggest the opposite. The journey by land takes two days on horseback, skirting the edges of cliffs, crossing the mad currents of rivers and torrents, enduring the increasingly intense effects of the altitude and harsh storms.

Going up to the Valley of Tears is not even always possible. The first time I wanted to revisit the site with my wife and children, the weather was so bad that we weren’t able to make it up to the glacier at all.

Neither does going by air guarantee easy access. In 2002 I had joined a team from Paris Match in an unusual foray in a helicopter. The machine had a transparent floor, which made me feel a little like Peter Pan flying over the Andes. But that scenic flight couldn’t make it to the Valley of Tears because of the turbulence, and we had to settle for landing far below the valley, where we could at least see the cross.

The mountaineers from the Andean Relief Corps chose that spot to build the grave because it is outside of the natural avalanche gully, and also because there they found enough earth to dig a pit and form a mound atop it, which supports the cross.

After a few days of work, when they had finished burying all the remains, they held mass in honor of the dead.

Before leaving the site, in an attempt to clean up the area, they doused the fuselage with gasoline and set fire to it, seemingly hastily and incompletely, since even today in every thaw scattered parts appear everywhere.

The metal tube that was our home for those 72 days was only partially burned. It must have been hidden beneath the snow for many years, because we never heard news of anyone having seen it. Then in 1995, the first time I returned with 11 other survivors to the place where we had suffered and learned so much, at one point in the rough ascent we suddenly saw it in front of us in the cavity of a huge crevasse, as if the mountain had opened its fist to show us what had been hidden for decades from other eyes that weren’t ours.

* * *

In 1994, 22 years after our rescue, the idea of going back to visit the site started forming little by little. After mentioning it to my cousins Daniel and Adolfo, we realized that we all shared the feeling. It seemed like a good idea to many of my other brothers of the cordillera too. For some reason almost all of us were feeling the necessity of going back at the same time.

Roy was the most involved in organizing the trip, which took place a year later. It was an intense experience for everyone, and even a necessary one in my opinion, crucial for the last stage of processing everything we had experienced. Sitting next to the grave that first time, I cried deeply; and since then I have been able to do the same every time, as if the seal that kept the full expression of my pain locked away had been broken. At last I could mourn my dead friends, something I had not been able to do properly in those days when our emotions had shut down to enable us to survive from one day to the next.

On the first night that we 12 survivors camped next to the cross, there was such a strong wind that we began to feel afraid, which brought back our memories even more vividly. We had changed, grown and experienced so much in the last two decades, but the endless and brutal wind seemed to be exactly the same.

* * *

It is now 2006, and I have returned again with Ricardo Peña. Ricardo and his brother Victor have left to explore the glacier together with James Vlahos, a photographer and reporter for National Geographic. I stay behind with Mario, the horse handler, who then sets off by himself to look for water and view the landscape.

There is no one else around within thousands of yards. Never before have I been so completely alone in the Valley of Tears. My thoughts soon plunge into the depths of my memory.

I decide to wait for my friends to return before setting up the tent we brought. We have already set another one up at the base camp, located halfway up the ascent to the cross, about four or five hours away on horseback. Around me is the equipment and supplies we need for our five-day visit: rope, sleeping bags, camp stoves, food, and headlamps.

For a few days we will have to limit ourselves to eating dehydrated meals, which are rather good at first, until we get tired of them and prefer cured ham, nuts, cheese, and fruit, which we also have in our provisions.

Still lingering in my mind is the conversation I just had with Mario. He told me about the suicide of his son and about how the mountain saved him from falling irretrievably into the darkest of depressions. I feel connected to him in our shared capacity to capture the healing power of this magnificent environment.

The day is beautiful and the calm is absolute. Every time I come back here I am reconnected with our story of survival as if with a guiding thread at once firm but also flexible, because the memories never come in the same form or in the same order. I stop at one detail or another in a certain event, and sometimes others appear that hadn’t surfaced before in the mass of memories that always flow unpredictably in the mind, fed by images in the subconscious and the various associations of thought.

I take pleasure in remembering those intense moments, even though they were so painful, like the morning when we heard the search had been canceled and the bitterness that crept into our hearts once we recovered from our shock and disbelief.

I remember the uncertainty that we had been holding at bay rushing in and filling our minds like a torrent of water. We had to manage it carefully so that it wouldn’t become desperation. We had to live with it and learn how to take things one step at a time, just like the mules that go single file on the razor-thin edges of a cliff. And as a sort of reward, more than two months later we heard the news, through the same weak little voice of the radio filled with static, that they were coming back for us. That is the memory that I treasure the most, and to which I always return: our cries of joy, seeing those among us who were on the verge of death stand up for the first time in a long time, everybody hugging each other and rolling around in the snow.

I relive that moment again and again, together with the moment the helicopters actually arrived. I can still hear the whirring of their blades, which was like the rhythmic sound of applause. We had achieved the impossible and life was our reward. But it wasn’t the life we had before; it had become something new. Often, in moments of difficulty, the vision of those helicopters is something I conjure as a way of regaining hope. The image represents salvation—a result of effort, sacrifice, and silence. That moment has become for me the visual representation of everything I learned on the mountain.

All of that happened long ago, and it remains in the past, except here under this infinite blue sky, this place where I can come to immerse myself in that past again, to feel that I am part of something limitless, something with no name, which despite being so vast is not empty because I return from it feeling fuller than ever, overflowing with a vital energy.

At times like this when I am here on a perfect afternoon, the good memories prevail, not because I have forgotten the suffering or the death that permeates our story, but because I feel that all that pain has been integrated into a spiritual reality that transcends all of us.

In addition to what we lived in those days as a society of the snow, there are the memories of all the experiences related to it that developed in the years afterward. Now the flow of memories is even richer in what it contains and still continues to grow as if it had a mind of its own. We all have the feeling that those who come to listen to us tell our story want to understand what we experienced in order to know more about themselves, to begin to see the depth of human capabilities, to take what we learned on the mountain and put it into practice in their own cordillera, because everyone has one in one way or another.

The first time I spoke in front of an audience about our experience was for a group of theater friends of the actor Gian DiDonna, who played me in the movie "Alive." The talk was in an old building in New York where an off-Broadway institute was located.

I remember the strange nervousness I felt as I climbed the stairs of the old building to the third floor, where I was going to face the challenge, new for me, of talking about the subject with strangers. There were 30 guys waiting for me in the room, all studying to be actors, and shortly after I started I came to realize how moved they were by my words. The necessity of speaking in English made it twice as hard, but even so I began to feel at ease, and my nerves left me entirely. After the lecture was over we moved to a loft where one of the actors lived and continued to talk for hours.

That first experience, so moving for me, inspired me to share my story with other audiences. The second time was in the city of Buenos Aires, in the San Miguel Jesuit Seminary, in front of about one hundred people, mostly members of the seminary and their families. I was moved by their attention and their total silence as they listened to me, and by the long applause at the end, which I hadn’t expected, and afterward by the dozens of people who approached me to thank me and to ask me questions. I think it was then that I became fully aware of the importance of sharing with others what I had learned in those 72 days.

Since those two unforgettable lectures I have spoken to audiences many times and in many different venues. Audiences vary, and I never say the exact same things twice, but the interest and the emotions are constants.

Having experienced a unique story so revealing of essential aspects of human nature has put me in contact with people from different cultures, and in the sharing of my experience I have come to see many places and gained valuable friendships. Ricardo, for example, is one of the many dear friends the mountain has given me, as if it wanted to compensate in some way for the ones it took away from me.

The mountain also taught me a new meaning of friendship that I have carried with me all these years. In the Valley of Tears we were able to strip ourselves of what, almost incidentally, usually obscures the real essence of a person. Up there we had no costumes or masks. We were human beings disconnected from everything that often gives us consistency. It didn’t matter what family we came from or whether we were good or bad students, or how old we were, whether we were good at sports or not, whether our social lives were glamorous or boring. All that had been left in another place, another world, inaccessible and for the moment useless.

We had become beings stripped of our environment, however much each of us carried with him his past, his abilities, and his acquired skills. The ties between us were centered much more on the individual himself, regardless of other elements that sometimes determine, favor, or hinder the beginning of a friendship.

I think about Carlitos, for example. He was seven years younger than me, a thing that, at our age, would have made it unlikely for us to share the same group of friends. It was the same in the case of Javier, married and much older than the rest of us. If we had met under any other circumstances I would have seen him as belonging to the world of adults, people whom, however fond we may be of them, we wouldn’t easily have counted among our lasting friendships. Yet I became bonded with both of them, despite our differences in interests and ways of life. The experiences we had on the mountain expanded my concept of friendship, freeing it from all previously acquired ideas. The mountain made friendship and love transcend all barriers, and I always try to share this when I speak on the subject.

Many people approach me when I give lectures. I can understand why the ordeal we lived through is of such singular interest, since there are no known precedents to our experience. Its lure appeals directly to the deepest aspects of human nature, and those who hear our talks can find inspiration for overcoming their own difficulties and painful situations.

There are also those who are so strongly connected with our story that they have gone up the mountain to search for the very thing that I have found in its peaks. Many of these people have surprised me with unforgettable moments. Such was the case on one visit to the crash site with Jeff Muhr, who woke me up one morning when the sun was peeking out from behind the Sosneado volcano.

“I have something for you, Eduardo,” he told me and handed me an iPod with headphones. As soon as I put them in my ears, the sound of Gounod’s “Ave Maria” transported me to another dawn, another sunrise when that song was for me an unmistakable sign of salvation. I’m sure he didn’t even realize the magnitude of the gift he had given to me that morning. Experiences, memories, and friends like these are some of the richest treasures the mountain has given me.

* * *

The filming of "Alive" had caused us great apprehension since the moment we found out it was going to happen. We were worried about who the director would be, which actors would play us, and many other things. Behind our concern there was probably a deep fear that we wouldn’t recognize ourselves in the fiction. The news that the director was American gave us even more doubts about whether he would be able to understand the cultural differences enough to portray us accurately.

I didn’t know who was going to play me until the filming had already begun, which worried me a great deal; but as soon as Gian DiDonna contacted me to ask for advice I realized that I had been very lucky. Not only did Gian, who as it turns out is of Italian heritage, manage to carry out his work responsibly and respectfully, but we ended up being great friends, to the point where he named me as best man in his wedding.

The move "Alive" made the whole world aware of what we had lived through. They filmed it in a ski resort called Panorama in the Canadian Rockies, and several of us assisted on set.

There were two sets: one at the resort, in a big tent where they reconstructed the environment where we had lived for those seventy-two days, and the other at the top of a glacier, where they had laid out (with the help of a helicopter) the fuselage of an airplane identical to the broken Fairchild.

Being on set merged fiction with memory. When we came and went, trying not to miss a moment of what was happening, we would cross paths with actors in costume, whom we would recognize as one of our brothers, or even ourselves. There were injured men who, during the breaks in filming, walked around calmly, people who assumed the role of the dead, trying to imitate their movements or saying their words, which we had heard in their original context. There was a real mountain where it was freezing cold and sometimes snowed with real snowflakes, not props. It all seemed like a crazy dream, and yet it was very raw and real to us at the same time.

At night we watched what had been filmed that day in a small room. We lived between amazement and latent attacks of emotion, which at any moment could overcome us without warning, not so much because of the reenactment of dialogue or the reanimation of people, but because of the physical environment and the atmosphere that was all around us, capable of transporting us back to that other place, the memory owned only by us. Adolfo and I shared one of our most powerful experiences when we arrived at the set of the fuselage one cold morning. That day the filming was taking place at the set back at the resort, so up there alone, with only the pilot of the helicopter that had brought us, we found only silence and snow around the body of the Fairchild, lying in the mist like a ghost of the one that had been our home.

The film didn’t leave us all satisfied, because much of what it depicts isn’t really accurate. Nevertheless, I remember when we saw it for the first time in an exclusive premiere for the 16 survivors, we were all moved to tears. We also went to see the premiere in New York and were even invited to tea at the house of the famous director Martin Scorsese, who at that time was in a relationship with Illeana Douglas, who played the part of Liliana.

* * *

It has now been more than two hours since my friends left to explore the glacier, and they still haven’t returned, which worries me and causes me to relive old fears. What if something happened to them and I am left alone here?

I try to calm myself down and conquer my anxiety. I breathe deeply and watch the sky.

This site is one of my places in the world. Here, next to the cross, I am myself, and I recover the best of myself. This is the second time I have been here this year. The first was just a few days ago with Ricardo Peña, his cousin Ana Lorena, and my children, Sofía and Pedro.

To control my fears, I try to focus on the good memories, and among them the thirtieth anniversary celebration, in October of 2002, stands out, when all the survivors reunited in Santiago, Chile, invited by the Chilean rugby team, the old Grangonians, the team our Uruguayan team would have played back then if the plane hadn’t crashed.

We stayed in the Sheraton San Cristóbal hotel, the same place where we had reunited with our families after the rescue. Fourteen of the 16 survivors attended, and those who had vowed never to set foot in an airplane again drove over 20 hours to get there.

Before starting the rugby match a mass was held on the field. When it was over I heard the sound of a helicopter. Was it a hallucination caused by the strength of the emotion? The sound became louder and clearer, and then there was no doubt that it was real. For a moment I thought that the helicopter passing overhead was a coincidence, but when we saw it appear behind the silhouette of the mountains and begin a slow descent toward us, we knew that it must be part of the celebration. We watched it, stunned and amazed. It was identical to the helicopters that had rescued us from the mountain. I heard once again that sound in the air, and it immediately carried me back to the forever-treasured memory of what I consider to be my second birth.

It landed among us on the field, and with another unforgettable sound, the sliding door opened. I could barely contain my impulse to run toward it. The emotion of this seemed unsurpassable, but there was another surprise in store for us. Out of the helicopter stepped Sergio Catalán—the cattle driver who had left his cattle, riding eight hours on horseback to get help. He was smiling, happy to be seeing us again, his 16 Uruguayan friends whose story he had been linked with since that day in December of 1972.

Later we played the symbolic rugby match, which lasted less than 10 minutes, and afterward we received wool ponchos from the Chilean players with our names, as well as the emblems of both rugby clubs, embroidered on them.

Some family members of our brothers who had died were also part of this touching celebration, which gave even more meaning to the event.

* * *

Now I am really worried because my friends still haven’t come back. I look around me so the landscape might transmit some of its peace and harmony to me. An image of my son Pedro on his recent visit to the Valley comes to me, when on seeing this magnificent environment that surrounds me now, he said as if to himself: “Now I understand many things.” They were few words, but they had enormous significance. He didn’t need to say anything else. That small phrase represented the strong connection between us and also between us and this sublime place, whose mystique I will never fully understand.

There are things that mere logic cannot explain, and one of them is the ability this place has to revive and replenish the most essential parts of one’s being. In my first journey here with my wife and children, we had to stay at base camp because the weather was too bad for us to go up to the cross. Laura and I spent a sleepless night kneeling in the center of a small tent that didn’t have a rain fly, so the rain seeped inside when we touched the walls. Nevertheless, the next morning we felt a strange sensation of peace and freedom, and we were as full of energy as if we had slept in the best of conditions.

Every expedition brings something new, and often the discoveries speak of events that took place here before our rescue, as if the before and after are intertwined in a continuous plot of endless revelations.

Once, we unexpectedly found a lagoon of turquoise waters in one of the high valleys, and the discovery made us remember the description of the psychic, Croiset, who said that the wrecked airplane was near a lake that nobody had ever seen before, surely because it was covered by ice.

* * *

With relief, I see Mario climbing the slope from the east. Solitude is beautiful, but there comes a point when seeing a human figure again gives us an instinctive joy, even more intense when the approaching figure is a friend.

Shortly afterward the other three arrive. Even from far away I can see the satisfied expression on Ricardo’s face that he usually wears at returning from his explorations. Every time he tells of something new, some new discovery. We both share that love of discovery, which brings us to recognize in the mountain the constant renewal that makes it similar to a living organism. It is always the same, and it is always changing. It hides objects in its mantle of snow, which appear later on the slopes below, or which are found in more extreme periods of thaw.

Once, when I was nearing the site on horseback, slightly separated from the rest of the group, I saw a piece of the very glacier where we now sit break off. It gave me great pleasure to see this destruction—or maybe not destruction, but transformation—from a distance of space and time, knowing that from where I was, I was completely safe.

I hope to go on like this until the day comes when I will make my final visit to the Valley of Tears together with my family. My children will leave my ashes at the base of this iron cross, to rest forever near my brothers of the snow.

By Eduardo Strauch

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By Mireya Soriano

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