"In these kinds of situations it's not how you survive but why you survive," Roberto Canessa tells PEOPLE of surviving the 1972 Andes flight disaster
Just a few days after their plane crashed into the Andes, Dr. Roberto Canessa and the other survivors of Uruguayan Flight 571 were faced with an unthinkable ultimatum: eat the bodies of their friends who had died following the wreck – or perish themselves.
Canessa was a 19-year-old second-year medical student when the plane he and his rugby teammates had chartered to carry them to a match crashed into the frozen mountains. It was he who first suggested to his fellow survivors, also his childhood friends, that they must resort to cannibalism in order to stay alive. With little hope of rescue and no food left to sustain them, the young men cut flesh from their friends’ bodies, “amid much torment and soul-searching,” Canessa writes in his book. “We laid the thin strips of frozen flesh aside on a piece of sheet metal. Each of us finally consumed our piece when we could bear to.”
The agonizing decision helped them survive until they were rescued 72 days after the crash – a miraculous moment marred by the haunting memories of what they had done.
Canessa recounts this struggle and others he faced following the tragic crash in his new book I Had to Survive: How a Plane Crash in the Andes Inspired My Calling to Save Lives, due out March 1. Canessa, now a renowned pediatric cardiologist dedicated to helping newborns with complex congenital cardiopathies, tells PEOPLE that thoughts of his mother and his then-girlfriend, now-wife, Lauri, got him through the traumatic time.
“In these kinds of situations it’s not how you survive but why you survive,” he says. “I remembered very vividly my mother and I went to [visit the mother of] a friend who had died and she was devastated. And my mother told me, ‘If one of my children died, I couldn’t make it through life, I would die of sadness.’ So I had to go back and tell my mother, ‘Don’t cry anymore, I’m alive.’ So I think that was the driving force for me.”
Describing his bittersweet reunion with his mother, Canessa tells PEOPLE, “She sat by my side and grabbed my hand and said, ‘You’re home.’ ”
But the fact that he had survived on the flesh of his friends weighed heavily on his mind. “I told her, ‘Mother, we had to eat our dead friends,’ and she said, ‘That’s okay, that’s okay, sweetie.’ ”
His father, however, feared “all the world is going to blame you.” “And I said, ‘I don’t care the only thing I want to do is go to the families of my friends who died and tell them what happened. I don’t expect them to understand but they should know what happened.’ But thank God, people were very receptive and very supportive and they consider what we did something we had to do so everything went very smoothly.”
“When we came back, the families of the persons that died were incredibly supportive to us, which I really treasure,” he adds. “We were in a very vulnerable situation.”
Canessa was also reunited with his beloved Lauri in another emotional moment. “The doctor told her, ‘You must go slowly’ but she rushed and jumped into the room and I remember I was engulfed by her perfume, her hair and everything,” he says.
Within three months, Canessa had resumed his normal life, returning to his medical studies and the rugby field. But the tragedy undeniably shaped his life.
Canessa recalls how, two months after the crash and with only 16 of the 45 passengers left alive, he and his friend Nando Parrado embarked on a “life-or-death” mission to the bottom of the mountain to search for help. When they finally reached civilization more than a week later, “we got in touch with a shepherd He was generous enough to go and search for help for us, [even though] he didn’t know us and no one believed that we were alive,” Canessa tells PEOPLE. “And in this way, a very humble person saved the life of my friends.”
“Now when I have the chance to save the heart of a baby that is sick and comfort a very humble person, I believe I am giving back what the shepherd gave me,” he continues.
Canessa says he and the other survivors and their families still meet every year. At their first reunion dinner after the rescue, there were 30 people, including the survivors and their girlfriends. The annual gathering has since expanded to include children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. “Last year, there were 180 people,” Canessa says proudly.
“I think this was a very good way to cure all our souls from what happened in the mountain because we were like a tribe, all together there So to heal yourself is to get along and be together and to be honest and to look at each other and to understand that there are things in life that you cannot change. To accept the changing of the rules is the best way to succeed in life. And then your attitude is what makes you go ahead.”
Canessa says he included the many lessons he “learned from the mountain” in his book in hopes that future generations will learn from his survival story, which became known in his homeland of Uruguay as “El Milagro,” or “the miracle.”
Most importantly, he says, is the lesson that “you shouldn’t wait for your plane to fall to enjoy and be grateful for life.”