40 years on, rugby team who survived Andean plane crash return to the field

 

Roberto Canessa still knows how to time a pass, although he's lost a few yards of pace in recent years. And it's safe to say that trying to sidestep Fernando Parrado is a lot easier now than it was in his heyday.

For both men to even be on the pitch is nonetheless a miracle. Exactly 40 years ago, Canessa and Parrado were at the centre of one of the greatest survival stories in human history, after an aeroplane carrying their rugby team crashed in the Andes.

The duo, and 14 of their teammates from Uruguay's Old Christians Rugby Club, stayed alive by eating the flesh of dead passengers who had been killed in the initial disaster. Then they walked for 10 days across the frozen mountain range to find help.

Eventually, 72 days after the initial accident, the two men stumbled upon a Chilean shepherd who took them to safety. Rescuers were then able to locate the wreckage of their aeroplane and bring fellow survivors to safety. Sixteen of its 45 passengers and crew were saved. On Saturday's anniversary of the famous crash, Canessa and Parrado travelled to Santiago with fellow veterans of the ordeal to play a friendly rugby match against the Old Grangonian, the Chilean team they were originally supposed to have faced in 1972.

Though played at a pace reflecting the advanced age of the players, the game ended in a thumping victory for the visitors, by 71 points to 14. But speaking to reporters afterwards, Parrado said: "We could have been dead in a glacier," he said. "But here we are playing with our Chilean friends."

The tale of the crash, and its cannibalistic survivors, has been turned into countless books and the Hollywood film Alive, in which Canessa and Parrado were played by Josh Hamilton and Ethan Hawke.

"I think the greatest sadness I felt in my life was when I had to eat a dead body," Canessa, 59, said. "I would ask myself: is it worth doing this? And it was because it was in order to live and preserve life, which is exactly what I would have liked for myself if it had been my body that lay on the floor."

Veteran members of both teams have played several memorial fixtures in recent years. But they aren't getting any younger, and this weekend's 40th anniversary game may be the last time that some crash survivors take to the field. With that in mind, Chile's President, Sebastian Pinera, invited the team to meet him at the country's Presidential palace. Also at the reception, in a red poncho, was the now-elderly Sergio Catalan, the shepherd who helped end their ordeal all those years ago.

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