The Andes 1972 Museum – one of the great human survival stories of the 20th century

On Friday, October 13, 1972, a Uruguayan Fairchild 227 airplane carrying a rugby team of young men on board crashed in the Andes. This was the beginning of one of the most overwhelming stories of survival in human history. Initially, 32 people survived the crash against one of the world’s highest mountain ranges. Many of the passengers were seriously injured. At almost 4000 metres above sea level, with neither appropriate clothing nor food, surrounded and trapped in the mountains, they were virtually doomed to perish from the extremely low temperatures. Their very limited provisions, consisting of a few sweets, some cans of food and a couple of bottles of alcoholic beverages, quickly ran out. For ten long days they waited to be rescued. Then they heard on the small pocket receiver that the search had been called off.

Andes 1972 Museum signThese are the first words that you encounter when you enter Museo Andes 1972 which is the first and only Uruguayan tribute to the survivors –all Uruguayan–, victims and the Chilean cattle drover who rode for a day to get help.

Museo Andes is a private venture by Jörg Thomsen, a Uruguayan businessman. Jörg was sixteen when the crash happened. He didn’t know anyone involved at the time, though he does now and his motivation to tell the story is on many levels.

There has never been any official public recognition of the ordeal, or acknowledgement of the role of the drover. Though the crash happened on a Uruguayan air force plane, the government did not send a search-and-rescue party.

Personally Jörg’s godfather died in another plane crash in the 1970s and during his own youth he and his family were trapped on a plane which caught on fire.

The story of the Andes crash survivors is one of the great human survival stories of the Twentieth Century.
The story of the Andes crash survivors is one of the great human survival stories of the Twentieth Century.

The story of the Andes crash survivors is one of the great human survival stories of the Twentieth Century. Yet when he travelled abroad, Jörg was sick and tired of people’s only reference to Uruguay being the You-are-gay joke in the Simpsons.

Jörg felt that the miracle of the survival of his compatriots against so many terrible odds was a story that illustrated Uruguayan values of solidarity, teamwork and friendship. After seeing that the government looked unlikely to set anything up, and his grandchildren and others of their generation growing up without knowing what had happened, last year Jörg left his company in his family’s care to dedicate himself full-time to the set up the museum. “If I didn’t do it, then noone else would,” he concluded.

Sign at entrance

The museum – a heart-wrenching yet hopeful experience

Cordillera sunglasses
The sunglasses the survivors –who were mainly young men in their early 20s– fashioned to protect their eyes from the intense sunlight on the snow. They jokingly referred to them as “cordillera raybans”.

Andes 1972 is mainly based on textboards telling the story and a number of exhibits. There is an interesting timeline that puts the crash in historical context. All of the exhibits except for a small radio are original and were donated to the museum.

There are plans to include more interaction such as a room where you will go in and experience the blisteringly cold temperatures of the Andes, but that is for the future.

Just coming through the door, the exhibition itself could appear dry, text-heavy and a little static.

What really brings it alive is the fact that what happened is so dramatic and heart-wrenching and Jörg’s telling of events is outstanding. Though the English could do with some editing, the texts are actually extremely emotive and well-written. I came away far more moved than I had ever imagined. I also felt I wanted my son to go and visit, so Jörg has really achieved his object.

Looking at the comments from other visitors in TripAdvisor I am not alone.

Survivors coat
This coat was given to one of the survivors at last minute by his mum, who warned that it “might get cold”. He did not wear it for many days of the ordeal, having lent it to one of his friends who was badly injured.

The museum website recommends the visit for adults and children over twelve, and that if you plan to take younger children that you talk to them first about what they are going to hear. This is good advice. This story is not for the faint-hearted.

The exhibit is thoughtfully in English and German as well as Spanish (unlike most Uruguayan museums which limit themselves to Spanish – when will this change?!). The guided tours are run in the three languages plus Portuguese. Jörg speaks all four languages, though he considers his very good English his fourth language.

Reading the full text that summarises the story of the “tragedy and miracle” and is presented at the entrance of the museum alone brought a lump to my throat. Jörg kindly shared it with me and I reproduce it here in its entirety.

I fully recommend a visit to the museum. And bring your family – with the right preparation. Maybe on a Saturday when most other museums are closed.

On Friday, October 13, 1972, a Uruguayan Fairchild 227 airplane carrying a rugby team of young men on board crashed in the Andes. This was the beginning of one of the most overwhelming stories of survival in human history. Initially, 32 people survived the crash against one of the world’s highest mountain ranges. Many of the passengers were seriously injured. At almost 4000 metres above sea level, with neither appropriate clothing nor food, surrounded and trapped in the mountains, they were virtually doomed to perish from the extremely low temperatures. Their very limited provisions, consisting of a few sweets, some cans of food and a couple of bottles of alcoholic beverages, quickly ran out. For ten long days they waited to be rescued. Then they heard on the small pocket receiver that the search had been called off.

But things got even worse on the eve of day 17 when an avalanche of snow hit them while they were sleeping in the remains of the fuselage, burying them completely and killing eight people. From the 45 passengers and crew members, finally only sixteen survived. In order to withstand the bitter cold and inhospitable weather conditions in the mountains, with temperatures below -30 ºC (-22 ºF), they were forced to re-invent many things.

For instance,

  • They devised a system for producing water from snow, despite the extremely low temperatures.
  • They used the fabric of the seat covers as quilts.
  • They handcrafted sunglasses to protect themselves from the intense solar radiation, etc.

The most critical issue they had to face was the lack of food, which forced them to make the very tough, distressing and controversial decision of having to use the bodies of their dead mates.

Trapped as they were in this desperate situation they made several attempts to get out of that valley. During one of these expeditions they reached the tail of the airplane where they discovered the insulation material of the air conditioning unit. With this material they devised a large sleeping bag by sewing the pieces together with copper wires from the electric system.

The final and successful expedition was undertaken by two of the young men. Exhausted after hiking for 10 long and endless days over the rugged mountainous terrain, with neither climbing gear nor proper clothing, they finally came across a cattle drover. This man then had to ride for 8 hours to the next police station in order to report the encounter and seek help. His response –and generous attitude– put an end to the 72 days of horror, pain, hunger, desperation… but also brought hope back to their lives.

In January 1973, when the site became easier to access after the snow had melted, the bodies were –finally– buried. The chosen place lies 800 m away from the impact zone, on the glacier’s southern shoulder. A one-metre high iron cross was erected at the top of the stone pile. The cross bears the following inscriptions, which are still legible: “The World to Its Uruguayan brothers” and on the rear, “Nearer, O God, To Thee”. The main part of the hull, which had served as their dwelling throughout the ordeal, was splashed with gasoline and set on fire. With time it was gradually swallowed up by the glacier, in its slow westward drift.”

The Andes 1972 Museum is open from Monday to Friday 10am till 5pm and Saturdays Monday to Saturday 10am till 3pm. It is centrally located at in the Ciudad Vieja (Old City), half a block from the Plaza Matriz (Colonial Square).

Museo Andes 1972
Rincón 619, Ciudad Vieja, Montevideo
Tel. (+598) 2916 94 61

Open Mon-Sat 10-5
Entrance fee 200 pesos (apx 10 USD)
Exhibit in English, Spanish and German
Tours in English, Spanish, German and Brazilian-Portuguese.

For more information about the Andes crash:

  • Alive! first authorised book about the events
  • Andes Accident official website in English and Spanish
  • Stranded Uruguayan documentary with subtitles in English
  • National Geographic interactive
  • Another recommended biography La sociedad de la nieve is being translated and should be out this year in English. You can already read it in Spanish.

 

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