SANTIAGO, Chile – Surviving members of an Uruguayan rugby team have played a match postponed four decades ago when their plane crashed in the Andes, stranding them for 72 days in the cordillera and forcing them to eat human flesh to stay alive.
The Old Christians Club squared off Saturday in Santiago in a game that was tied 1-1 against the Old Grangonian Club, the former Chilean rugby team they were supposed to play back when their flight went down. Their terrifying story became the basis of a best-selling book and a Hollywood movie.
"At about this time we were falling in the Andes. Today, we're here to win a game," crash survivor Pedro Algorta, 61, said as he prepared to walk onto the playing field surrounded by the jagged mountains that trapped the group.
During the anniversary ceremony, military jets flew over the field, where parachutists draped in Chilean and Uruguayan flags landed. In a corner, survivors wept when officials unveiled a commemorative frame with pictures of those who died in the snowy peaks.
"The conditions were more horrifying than you can ever imagine. To live at 4,000 meters without any food," said survivor Eduardo Strauch, 65. "The only reason why we're here alive today is because we had the goal of returning home ... (Our loved ones) gave us life. They made the sacrifice for others."
The Uruguayan air force plane that carried the team crashed in a mountain pass in October 1972 while en route from Montevideo to Santiago. Of the 45 passengers aboard, 16 survived by feeding on dead family members and friends preserved in the snow.
"I think the greatest sadness I felt in my life was when I had to eat a dead body," said Roberto Canessa, 59, who was a teenage medical student at the time of the crash.
"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," he said
Desperate after more than two months in the frigid peaks, Canessa and Fernando Parrado left the crash site to seek help. It was the group's last attempt at survival.
After 10 days of trekking, they spotted Sergio Catalan, a livestock herder in the foothills of the Chilean Andes. The conditions were such that the pair couldn't get too close to Catalan, but from afar, they heard him say one word: "Tomorrow."
"With that (word), our suffering ended," Canessa said.
Catalan, who at the time rode his horse to the nearest town to alert rescuers, returned to meet the survivors on Saturday in a hat and poncho. He walked slowly this time with the aid of a cane and pointed at the sky when helicopters hovered over the field just as they did 40 years ago over the barren mountains.
Carlos Paez, 58, waved a small red shoe at a helicopter carrying Parrado as he did when the Chilean air force choppers rescued him and the others. Parrado gave a similar red shoe to his friends at the crash site before he left for the cordillera and guided rescuers back.
"I came back to life after having died," said Parrado, whose mom and sister died in the Andes. "It's something that very few people experience." His experience, he said scarred him but made him stronger and brought him a newfound appreciation for life.
"Since then, I have enjoyed fully, carefully but without fear. I tried to enjoy my friend, my dog, my passions, a second at a time," said Parrado, who has been a TV host, a race car driver and a motivational speaker.
Survivor Daniel Fernandez, 66, held the trophy that would have been the reward for the game to be played the day of the crash.
The ordeal "taught me that we set our own limits," Fernandez said. "If I had been told: 'I'm going to leave you in a mountain 4,000 meters high, 20 degrees Celsius below zero (-4 Fahrenheit ) in shirtsleeves, I would have said: I last 10 minutes.' Instead, I lasted 72 days."
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