Friday, October 12, 2012

Flight 571: With God in the Andes


October 13, 2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the plane crash of Flight 571 in the Andes Mountains.

The Age-old Question: “Why?!”

The plane crash of Flight 571 in the Andes Mountains on October 13, 1972 involved one of the greatest miracles of aviation history. Out of 45 passengers, 29 survived the initial accident. Amazing! Considering that mountain plane crashes involve a mortality rate of almost 100 percent.

Yet, during the seventy two days that followed, 13 more people died at the crash site. And on that mountain one of the oldest questions in human history was asked by the survivors. This question, enshrined in Scripture for all to contemplate, was asked by the prophet Habakkuk: “How long, O LORD? I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not intervene. Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? Destruction and violence are before me…”(1:2-3)

While loved ones were dying and while human strength was waning, the faith, the hope and the love of these young Uruguayan college athletes, barely 20 years old, was put to the ultimate test. And it is from that test in the Andes Mountains where the titanic struggle between life and death daily played out. For countless people who have been inspired by their story, the answer to Habakkuk’s question came to light.

That answer, which escapes so many souls, has something to do with what Pope St. Gregory the Great said over a thousand years after Habakkuk penned his question. The saintly pontiff said, “Virtue acts quietly but the reputation of virtue is stirred up by the whip.” That is to say, adversity reveals what the human spirit is capable of with God’s help. It is in the reputation of virtue that helps others in their quest to overcome their own problems.

Troubling? Yes! Painful? Absolutely! But it is true, nevertheless, to say that some are called to suffer so that others may have life (cf. II Corinthians 4:12). This is the love of Christ at its best..

As for the 16 survivors of Flight 571, the 72 days in the Andes revealed not only their character and heroism but invaluable insights into the mysteries of life and death. After all, the centerpiece of this story is one of a real and palpable communing with God on the mountain. At 29,500 feet, on that cold and lifeless mountain, there was nothing! No food. No shelter, other than the fuselage. But there was God. And to be sure, they would experience that God in new and profound ways.

If truth be told, it was the faith of the survivors that was the underlying key to their survival. One of the survivors who journeyed ten days out of the mountains to get help was Roberto Canessa. For him, his faith sustained him through it all. In a 1974 interview, he said, “Up in the mountains I wondered ‘How would I get out of here?’ and I always answered myself ‘I have God with me, he’s my friend and he’s the owner of the mountain.’” From October 13th, the day of the crash, to December 20th, when the first sign of help was spotted, was a time when the Catholic upbringing of 16 Uruguayan rugby players came face to face with their own mortality.

The Flight, the Crash, the Andes:

On October 12, 1972, when 45 people boarded Flight 571, there was no premonition of what was to lie ahead. The rugby team, with some family members, was due to fly from Uruguay to Chile. But first, they stopped in Argentina. And on October 13th, they were scheduled to continue their flight from Argentina- around the Andes mountain range –to Chile. Fernando Parrado, one of two survivors who managed to climb out of the mountains to get help, said that death could not be further from his mind. He was once asked if he thought a lot about death. He responded: “Like any other people but when you have 18 or 19 year-old you play rugby, you are immortal, and all those things are far from you. I could have thought about it but not in a serious way.”

But after Fernando boarded the plane on October 13th, all of that changed. Due to a navigational error, the pilots of Flight 571 had mistakenly believed that they had cleared the mountain range on route to Chile. However, as the aircraft pierced beneath the clouds, they realized, to their horror, that they had descended too soon. Immediately, they tried to pull up and ascend. But it was too late! One of the wings clipped the top of one of the mountain tops. The tail end of the plane then ripped off. With that, a few passengers were ejected out of the aircraft.

Miraculously, the fuselage remained intact and served as a kind of toboggan when it hit a downward slope. After sliding down the side of the mountain, it abruptly hit a snow bank, catapulting some out of their seats. The sudden stop, unfortunately, killed a more few passengers. Following that dramatic descent, some of the survivors couldn’t believe they were alive. In fact, as stated previously, 29 out of 45 survived the initial accident. Truly, this was a miracle in itself!

Three more people died the first night. It got as low as 30 degrees below zero!! The cold, as the survivors recount, was virtually unbearable. But they found ways to keep warm. As Gustavo Zerbino, one of the survivors, said in May of 2000, “We lived every second as if it was the last one. We were very creative; our creativity awoke in unimaginable limits.”

Dashed Hopes:

For the next three days there were signs of hope that they would be rescued immediately. A few search planes flew over the crash site. One plane in particular, it seemed, tipped its wings to indicate that the pilot spotted the survivors. With great joy and jubilation, they thought were going home. Throwing caution to the wind, some even ate more food than they should have. But the much anticipated rescue was not to be. The food that was set aside to be rationed was consumed.

A curious theme runs through many survival stories. Quite often, when tragedy hits- thus leaving survivors stranded in remote areas such as the mountains, ocean, desert or forest -there is often a teaser in those first days. By “teaser” I mean a rescuer or passerby is spotted by a survivor. Initially, there is great hope of an imminent rescue. Then, to their dismay, such a rescue never happens; not immediately, anyways.

It just so happens that in many of these stories the rescuer or passerby never did see the survivor(s). Hope then turns into despair. And in order to survive, hope must, once again, get the upper hand. Eventually, hope must prevail over despair. As Roberto Canessa said, “What kept you strong was thinking about the next day ‘maybe tomorrow’ was what kept us alive 72 days, ‘maybe tomorrow’ we’ll get out of here…’maybe tomorrow’ was our motive.”

Divine Providence, it would seem, delays immediate relief and hence ordains the prolonged struggle to survive. Perhaps, this has something to do with what Bishop Fulton Sheen once said. He made the observation that we overestimate our capacity for pleasure but underestimate our capacity to suffer. When we say, “It can’t get any worse!” It often does. And to our surprise, we endure! Sheen further adds that going beyond what we think is our limits is God’s way of telling us that he only permits us to experience “only so many” pleasures and joys in life so that we do not mistake earth for heaven. Pain and suffering is to be exhausted here on earth. After all, it is a place of exile. But true happiness is to be found elsewhere. This spiritual truth was constantly being impressed upon the Andes survivors.

As for the remaining survivors in the Andes Mountains, when it seemed like things couldn’t get any worse, not surprisingly, it did! Not only did they hear over the radio that the search and rescue had been called off, but about eight days into their ordeal they were subjected to an avalanche at night while they were sleeping. That avalanche claimed eight more lives.

Beyond Death:

Two men who barely survived had a near death experience as they were stuck, buried in the snow, and unable to breathe. During that time one survivor experienced and incandescent light of God, a heavenly beauty. Another survivor had a similar experience during those moments under the snow. He saw and experienced his whole life as in a flash, as if outside of time. And just as they were about to reach out and enjoy perfect happiness the snow was wiped off of their faces. Their lives were saved but their souls were, as it were, thrown back into their hellish situation.

Interestingly, due to their euphoric experience, the natural fear of death was lost. This attitude seemed to have been communicated to the rest of the survivors. During an interview in 1973, Alfredo Delgado spoke to this. He said, “I was surrounded by deaths whether it were at the accident or because of it or even the deaths caused by the avalanche. I learnt to live with it with the feeling that there is something superior. That life sheared with death, let’s say pacific, was possible because I became more convinced that after the death comes something better…”

So used to and at peace with the idea of death, that, in the same interview, he said to the reporter who had interviewed him, “If somebody comes and tells me that I have only three days left, I would remain immutable, I would keep walking with you across this street.” Indeed, Alfredo was confident that he would be unphased if death were to approach him again.

There were other valuable insights from this horrific but incredible experience on the mountain. In 2002, thirty years after the plane crash, Roberto Canessa was asked: “Was there any change on your religious beliefs after the accident?” His answer, like Alfredo’s, is quite instructive:

“Well, I think there are two types of Gods, one which is shown to you at the School, sitting in heaven and sending rays to the people who are on earth, and another one who is the one we knew in the Andes, we practically lived with him and we asked him help constantly. You get closer to the idea of the death and you think you are just passing through life, and that life is an accident in which the only real thing is that you’re going to die. With those parameters we learnt not to care about our possibility of dying because we were in peace with both our souls and God. In that constant talking with God we begged him the salvation to be difficult but not impossible. You were there and saw a friend dead, a friend who ten minutes earlier was alive.”

This statement is quite beneficial for those who wish to spread the Faith. Implicit in Roberto’s statement is that religious education sometimes presents God in one way; and personal experience presents him in another way. Too often the former is abstract and too academic. As such, it remains somewhat isolated from day to day life. In other words, the gap between the God in our religious books and the God of personal experience needs to be bridged. Experience is not everything but it is an important component of Catholic spirituality. And what is universally experienced, universally intriguing and therefore universally relevant is death. Whenever the Gospel message gets too far away from suffering , death and the Cross itself, is then the Gospel itself seizes to attract souls. Why? Because the reality of heaven- the very goal of our existence -is less realized and less felt!

Survival and the Eucharist:

As it pertained to this valley of death, Roberto Canessa said, “[L]ife is an accident in which the only real thing is that you’re going to die…” The survivors were in an atmosphere of not only death but also of God and eternity. Nevertheless, the instinct for survival and their quest to live remained strong.

About a week into their accident, they were running out of food. As such, they were beginning to starve. Not only that, their friends and family members were dying. They had to make a decision. Either continue starving or consume human flesh in order to stay alive. They chose the latter. However, it was their Catholic faith that helped them to accept this radical and humiliating idea. Alfredo Delgado put it this way:

"The Bible tells us that at the Last Supper, Jesus shared his body and his blood with his disciples…At that time, we felt that if God existed, and if He was near us, our only chance of survival was to share that same kind of communion that he (Jesus) had shared with his disciples: to take the body and the blood…We also made a pact in the group that if anyone died, we could use his body in order to survive."

We know this to be the case in the sacramental order of God’s plan. St. Paul once said that we are “always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus.” (cf. II Corinthians 4:10) Then he adds, “So death is at work in us, but life in you.” (II Cor. 4:12) Those Christians who love to the full extent participate in the dying of Christ so that not only they, but so that others may have life. As our Lord himself said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.”

The point is this: The death of 29 passengers was far from being in vain. That suffering and those deaths were put to lifesaving use for the 16 young men that remained. And as for some who sensed their own death was imminent, they volunteered their body in advance for others to use. Just as with every Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, life and death existed side by side on that mountain.

The Ten Day Journey:

To make a long story short, on December 12, 1972, Roberto Canessa and Fernando Parrado decided that they had to make an attempt to hike out of the mountain range and get help. It was getting warmer and the days were getting longer (in South America, the southern hemisphere, our winter is their summer). At the very least, if they were to die, they would die walking. At one point, they ascended a mountain peak thinking that they would see civilization once they made the summit. But to their utter dismay, they saw more mountains as far as the eye could see. Again, they had to overcome despair. And that they did. Roberto and Fernando pressed on.

For Roberto, the first night in the mountains was the worst night of his life. He was wet, cold, hungry and crying. At times he even cursed in anguish. But several years later, when some of the survivors made a pilgrimage to the crash site with their families, he recounted what he had learned: Though he was unbearably cold that night, the moon happened to be shining on the mountain range. He said it was a most beautiful sight!! And for a few moments, he felt privileged to be there.

From this experience- both beautiful and painful -the Lord had taught him one of the greatest lessons in life. On the pilgrimage, he said this to his daughter: “I learned that in life and you’re desperate and there is no way out, doors appear that you couldn’t imagine. You need to know how to wait. When you don’t know what to do, you’re desperate. And you think you’re going to die. Just wait a bit, and time will bring you the answer.”

Roberto went on to elaborate on how close he felt to God during those ten excruciating days in the mountains. He explained: “And I felt I was God’s friend. I don’t feel that now. The One who made all of this, the Creator, was my friend.” His daughter then asked, “And why don’t you feel it now?” “Well,” he replied, “now we’ve got sandwiches, we’ve got tents, we know our way, so we don’t need God so much.” What a profound truth!! Here, in a very simple but profound way, is the wisdom of the Cross in a nutshell. During times of suffering and uncertainty- when we feel helpless –is precisely when God, quite often, does his greatest work in our souls. To be sure, the deepest kind of intimacy with the Lord comes with a price.

In any event, Roberto and Fernando finally made it out of the mountains. At last, they found help for the others who still remained at the crash site.

And today, where the crash site is, a rustic stone altar with an orange iron cross above it reads: "Close, Oh God, to You."

The Lasting Impression of the Story:

Something dawned on me while I was reflecting upon the untold suffering that the passengers of Flight 571 had to endure. It dawned on me that Christ did not choose to suffer and die on the Cross so that others could suffer and die because he did. No. He chose to suffer and die on the Cross because he saw that we, as human beings in a fallen world, were already suffering and dying. His sacrifice on the Cross was never meant to take away or prevent our suffering and anguish. Rather, he entered into his Passion because each and every one of us has a “passion” of our own. Out of love for us, he lowered himself into our suffering and death. He wanted to join us; not only join us, but to lift us up beyond a senseless and valueless kind of give it give it a saving infuse it with love. Through His Cross, therefore, our crosses can take on a divinely inspired purpose the unbaptized world never did enjoy.

Perhaps this is why survivor, Alfredo Delgado, was able to say that he experienced a deep peace on that mountain. Through the mystery of the Cross, he came to see the real value of suffering. And as such, he was able see the real value of life! About a month after the rescue, Alfredo was asked if he had changed. He replied, "Things have changed: I used to think mostly about me, now I'm thinking more about others...Material things, comfort, dollars and all that it's in the background to me."

This newly found attitude and worldview of Mr. Delgado' s is one of the greatest fruits of the Cross. And let there be no doubt, such a disposition of soul, in the retelling of the story of Flight 571, has inspired millions. It would seem that they suffered so that others would have hope! And in a suffering world- a world estranged from God -hope is everything.

"Make us glad, for the days when you afflicted us, for the years when we saw evil...may the gracious care of the LORD our God be ours; prosper the work of our hands for us!"

-Psalm 90



The survivors, in various interviews, shared some insights they had gathered on the mountain where life and death was hanging in the balance. Three topics come to mind:

1. Ability to survive: The ability to survive was not a matter of strength, but of decision. Those who gave up on life, died.

2. Leadership: It is not that the leaders on the mountain stepped forward and led so much as others stepped back. It was just that the leaders refused to step back with the rest.

3. Support: Among the 16 survivors, not everyone was strong at the same time, not everyone was weak at the same time. As with grieving families, when some were weak, other survivors stepped up and provided the strength.

Not only did the survivors have a real intimate communion with God on the mountain, they shared a kind of close fellowship amongst each other.