'Close, O God, to You'
December 23, 2012 marks the 40th anniversary of one of the most famous rescues in recent history. Two days before Christmas in 1972, two survivors of the plane crash from Flight 571 made a ten day journey out of the Andes Mountains in order to find help. Their story is one of drama, tragedy and hope.
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.”