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In Person A Word With.. Fernando Parrado

Athlete, businessman, motivational speaker and, most importantly, survivor – Fernando Parrado
speaks to On Location about the infamous plane crash in the Andes, what he did to make it out alive, and how it has affected the course of his life.

By Dina Spahi

This is a story about a passenger flight carrying a rugby team, their family, friends and crew from Uruguay to Chile; about how it crashed at 18,000 feet in the Andes killing 12 outright; and about how the survivors had to weather extreme conditions and heartbreaking decisions over the course of 72 days and nights to make it out alive.

Indeed, this story which takes place 47 years ago is such a powerful testament to the human spirit that it continues to inspire documentaries, movies and biographies right up to today. Two years after the crash, in 1974, “Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors,” was published by Piers Paul Read and, based upon interviews with the survivors, is a nail-biting account of the crash, the aftermath where a number died of their injuries, and later more still from an untimely avalanche. The book, which was adapted into the 1993 film ‘Alive’, chronicles the plight of the survivors, the decision to eat the flesh of those who had perished, and the bravery of two young men, Fernando Parrado and Roberto Canessa who set out to walk across the treacherous, snow capped Andes Cordillera, to guide stunned rescuers back to their friends who were still trapped in the mountains and presumed dead by the world.

Fernando ‘Nando’ Parrado, who is portrayed in the movie by actor Ethan Hawke and who lost his mother and sister in the crash, co-wrote the 2006 book Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home with Vince Rause, a beautiful story of friendship, tragedy and perseverance told from his point of view. Nando presents both the jaw-dropping realities of the 16 survivors’ story and the life-altering lessons he learned from the experience. Based on these lessons, and on the full and rich life which he has grabbed by the horns since the crash, Nando has become one of the leading and most coveted motivational speakers in the world, using his experience in the Andes to help others cope with psychological trauma.

“It is better to decide and make a mistake than not to decide. There is always time to turn back.”

Nando Parrado

Author, acclaimed speaker, television producer, and entrepreneur … Fernando has come a long way since the events in 1972!

On Location is honoured and humbled that Nando Parrado has generously taken the time to revisit the harrowing events of the crash, survival, and rescue, and all the emotions that go along with them, as well as to share with us how he continues to honour the past and celebrate the present…

It’s been nearly 47 years … you have moved ahead with an illustrious career and family life, yet three decades after the event you revisited it in your book ‘Miracle in the Andes’. How did you manage to move forward without blocking out the events?

Since the first day of my return, I never looked back. It was a conscious thought and determination of not letting the ordeal destroy my life. Of course it might have influenced it, in some ways that I can’t tell yet maybe the people that know me can; I just feel that I’m the same guy. I did not block out anything, but thoughts about the Andes are not recurrent, unless I choose to look into them. I simply realise that we have one life and not two, and I don’t want to waste it with PTSD, drugs, alcohol or depression! People that go through traumatic experiences often dive into these things to forget or to look for questions that do not have an answer. Being able to breathe again, without feeling that I’m condemned to die without any hope, is a great thing.

The first book, Alive, was written two years after the event …. you revisited the event in 2006 with your book; how have the passage of time and new insights affected the retelling?

The book “Alive” was written by a great British author called Piers Paul Read. It’s a great book, a fantastic documentary of the ordeal in the Andes. P.P. Read conducted magnificent research and interviewed all the survivors extensively, writing a complete bible about what happened in the Andes. It’s a book, however, whose creation was managed by the Christian Brothers of our school in Uruguay. We were very young and did not want to get involved in the craziness of dealing with all the publishing companies that were after our story, so the Brothers decided to take things into their own hands. They chose a Catholic writer and told us that we “should” write a book, because if not, many others books would be written and the truth would become what was going to be written in those pages and not the real truth. It took me three years to write my book and obviously I was able to reflect on the events and behaviours with a clear mind and probably with a more mature vision. There are things that even the passing of time can’t erode. Don’t get me wrong, the Andes ordeal does not haunt me at all, but the cold, the sound of our steps on the snow, the grey days and the emotions…if I stop and think, I can remember them very well. Luckily I mostly did it when I was writing!
“Alive” is the perfect clinical description of what happened there, an incredible documentary. My book, I think, is rich with personal feelings and my view of those events.

Why did you feel the need to write your version? What new insights did you want to share?

Actually, I didn’t feel that I had to share anything. My book was initially a present to my father, Seler, for his 90th birthday. I never thought that the book was going to be a bestseller and translated into 15 languages. After a life filled with an astonishing range of events, from the most incredible family happiness and success to the most cruel of situations, I wanted a great present for my father’s birthday. I thought about giving him a nice cruise, a car, a work of art, etc, but he had everything and at 90, most things are superfluous. So I figured that writing a book for him would be the best present. A book where, if you read between the lines, you will see that everything he had taught me saved my life in the Andes. He was the most pragmatic man that I ever met and he taught me that pragmatism is the only reality. All the rest is theory. He never knew that I was writing the book and for three years I kept writing on my computer and saving them under “Book”. Finally I had enough material for three books, but with the help of my friend and great writer Vince Rause, we edited and rearranged the chapters and the book was finally published by Crown, all over the world. On my father’s 90th birthday, I went to his house and gave him a first edition hard cover. He was surprised and asked me, “What is this book about?” I replied, “Just read it”. A few days later, he embraced me with the same warmth and strength as when he embraced me when we were reunited after the rescue. “Thanks. I love you so much,” were his words and for me it was the best present I have ever given in my life.

In the first book, which was made into a movie, you come out a hero. It’s been said that your hope and will to live inspired those around you. Do you recall feeling that hopeful?

When I speak with my survivor friends – we call ourselves “brothers” – they tell me that I always inspired trust and confidence in them and that they knew that I was going to get out of there somehow. I wish that they could have seen inside my mind! I was so afraid that I could not stop shaking. I felt that we were in very serious trouble and would most probably die. How I was going to die consumed my thoughts. Starvation? Freezing? Falling through a crevasse? If I was desperate, I can only imagine what they were going through.
The only thing that I was sure about, was that I was going to die, but I was going to die fighting for my life. As long as I was breathing, there was hope. I would carry on until I could not breathe anymore. I was pragmatic and because of that, I think that I saw the cruel reality before my friends did and I acted according to what my father had taught me. “Do and then pray later. Panic kills you, fear saves you.” I remember always trying to help the others. I can’t explain why, maybe because if we were going to die, at least let me die doing something good.

The body of the crashed plane became ‘home’ for Fernando and his teammates in the Andes.

One of the most fascinating aspects is how as a team, you were there for each other in this game of life & death.

I sincerely think that we were a very homogenous group. Most of us came from the same school, same background, same religion, same neighbourhood and were very much sport oriented. Fifteen minutes after the crash, we already had a leader (Marcelo Perez del Castillo, the team captain) and were acting as a team. I have thought many times, that had this crash occurred on a commercial airliner, probably no one would have survived. The actions taken during the first two to three hours after the crash allowed us to survive for two and a half months.
On a commercial flight, where you have different ages, languages, religions, education, characters, people travelling alone, people with their families…it would have been very hard to find a leader to take action and we would probably have all frozen to death on the first night. In our ordeal, there was absolutely no violence ever – there was friendship and love. I believe the case would have been different with strangers, especially when forced to make extreme survival decisions. The best or worst human behaviours arise during these situations.

One aspect people may forget is that you were mostly rugby players. Was it more that physical strength or the mental strength that helped you pull through?

Rugby is not a sport, it’s a religion. There are so many team sports in the world, but none like rugby. This is the only team sport in the world where the name of the player is not printed on the back of the team jersey. We are all the same, no stars. You protect your teammate beyond what happens in any other sport. Obviously, I think that we had more chances than members of a philharmonic orchestra or the garden club. Yes, physical strength was a bonus, but if I look back the mental strength was more important. To withstand the agony, the cold, the depression and then 10 days traversing the Andes, required something that I didn’t know I had. I had lost about 40 kilos and to attempt what we did, is not possible without a strong mind. But this is looking back, at the time I could not think about mental strength. I knew that if I wanted to live, I had a 0.00001 % chance and I had to climb and get out of there. I was not even aware of what resilience was. I was immersed in what I now call “reptile brain”, I only acted according to stimulus, to fear, like an insect or a snake.

The majority of the time it seemed that everyone was getting along fairly well …was that the case?

The way we behaved with each other for those 72 days, under the most extreme survival conditions, is the basis of our survival. There was never animosity. We always say that we were never as good as we were in the Andes. Maybe it’s an unconscious thought that if we’re going to die, at least let’s die being good people.

Speaking of storytelling, why do you think Roberto Canessa wrote his own version, and what are the main differences in accounts?

Many of the survivors wrote books or essays. Each one has their own story and wanted to print it and have something of their own. I only wanted to write a book as a present to my father, not to share anything or provide more explanations of the events. The fact that it was translated into 15 languages goes beyond what I expected or needed. When I started writing my book, I thought that I would have to publish it myself, maybe 100 copies, and give them to my father and friends.
Some books are a bit egotistical and some situations are described in ways in which I never saw them, or where personalities have been distorted over time or through telling stories so many times, that the writer starts to believe them. Many times I tell them that I was on another plane crash! There is only one real true story, and it can be read in the book “Alive” by Piers Paul Read…we all know it. All other books are tinted with personal points of view, maybe even mine. Enough said.

In the early recounting, you and Roberto made a great team. Did it really come down to the two of you to pull the team together for both the source of protein and, later, the decision to head out on that perilous 10-day trek to safety?

Although we are quite different in character and personality, we had great empathy and were able to work very well together. If I’m ever in a tricky situation of any sort, the person I need beside me is Roberto. I think that we truly understood the depth of our situation and we relied on each other without really talking about it. Being so pragmatic, I knew that the only way to gain time, wait for the summer and to survive, would be by eating the dead bodies. Roberto, who was studying medicine, instantly knew the same through another channel of thought. But the situation was so extreme, that I’m sure that all the boys reached the same conclusion around the same time.
I knew that the only possibility of survival was in our hands and I made the decision to leave very early on, but I had to wait for the summer to arrive. Throughout the following weeks I spoke with Roberto many times, asking him to come with me. I was very afraid, as I could not attempt the escape alone. It took me several weeks, but he finally understood that we could not stay by the fuselage indefinitely and he agreed to come. If I look back and reflect on the ordeal, I see Roberto and I doing a lot of the work and going out on every expedition. Most of the other survivors were inside the fuselage and never strayed 30 metres from it.

Has being part of a team helped you in your life? Or do you feel that people must rely on themselves?

Both are important. Having a good team in sports or business is essential for success. I believe in a good team and have applied the same principles of the Andes to my businesses. I believe in my people and trust them. Trust is so important. The first cameraman at my TV company has been with me for 36 years and is now my manager. My secretary Sandra has been with me for 26 years. But then when it comes to making important decisions, you’re alone and must rely only on your experience and intuition. Every individual has to rely on themself at certain times; they must lead their own life and make decisions, this is inherent to human beings. Unless you live in a communist country!

In the movie, the crash scene is jolting even for us viewers. Do you know what changes have been made to the flight path or to safety & rescue measures since that event?

The crash scene in the movie is very real. I only remember it up to the moment of the first impact and then, in a thousandth of a second, I died. I can’t recall anything until four days later when I awoke from my coma.
That flight path is very safe and is flown every day by many planes. Nowadays, all planes carry beacons and very advanced location technology.

You have done exceedingly well for yourself in a variety of fields. How those events shaped your way of thinking, of living, of working?

I would put it in another way. Probably the determination and pragmatism that I had before the crash is what allowed me to survive there. I have just kept living in the same way and applying the same determination to things. My wife says that my IQ is very low, but that I’m very determined and resilient and that I always get what I want, even if it takes a long time. Maybe I never had a philosophical change and was always the same.

The moment you all found out that the search had ended: what did you say/feel/do? What about the others?

I froze in fear. My brain did not react for some time. It’s impossible to express what you feel, when you are condemned to die. But then the hours go by and you have to deal with the situation. No hope. Hope only prolongs the agony. Reality bites so hard. Not one of your best days…I knew that day, that we were doomed. Some of the guys cried silently, others embraced. I sat inside the fuselage and wanted to wake up from that nightmare…but it was not a nightmare.

Fernando lives in Uruguay with his family.

That first day, when you decided to eat to live – were you quiet? Sad? Angry?

None of those thoughts. Instead it was ‘This is what we have to do, so let’s do it’. Pragmatic again. For some people, eating the dead bodies to survive is hard to understand, but being the most experienced in this subject in the world, I can tell you that anybody in the same situation would have arrived at the same decision. Theory is one thing, reality is another. Hunger is our most primal fear. Hunger will never be experienced, unless the situation is real. It’s not like fasting, that only tests your will not to open the fridge. Not knowing when you will eat again is the worst fear you can imagine and you will never understand the deep anxiety of hunger until your body starts to feed upon itself. When muscles, fat and liver are turned into energy and you feel it. It is scary.
It is strange and in a way reassuring, how humans get used to horror. After a few days, fighting the cold and thirst was more important.

In the movie, the hike is almost glossed over. In reality, that was an incredible journey.

The hike? It was one of the most incredible mountain crossings in the history of mountaineering. For the movie, they didn’t have the budget to film it, so they did it with images from a helicopter flight.
It was madness to undertake it, with a lot of ignorance dropped in as well. Had we known what we were going to face, we would have never left the fuselage. We thought that we were 8 kilometres away from safety, when we were actually about 85 kilometres away.
Well, one of my toughest achievements in life, was convincing Roberto to go West…he wanted to go East. But here we are, both alive and with our families, so it was the right way to go!

What were some of the interesting moments from the hike?

I could surely say that the full 10 days were “interesting”! But the one I will never forget, was when I reached the first summit and I looked to the West. I expected to see a small town and roads and I realised that I was in the middle of the Andes. At the summit I took one of the biggest decisions of my life: I decided that I was going to die trying. It was like a sort of slow suicide.
We kept pushing each other for 10 days. He was the best. We made a great team as I was like a train, I did not want to stop, I kept going and going and going and Roberto held me back in some parts. It was perfect teamwork, because if not I would have been burnt out the first days. The last two days were hard because we were coming to a state of weakness that was horrible. Luckily we found help, because we couldn’t have trekked one more day.

Describe the moment you reached safety. When you saw your father. Older sister. Home.

I would need a whole chapter for this, but to summarise I can recall that the best moments were:
a) The instant that I saw the peasant. I knew then that I would have a life.
b) When I guided the rescue helicopter to the site of the crash and saw my friends alive.
c) In 1972, there were no mobile phones, Internet or WhatsApp. It was a prehistoric era, so it took my father a day and a half to reach the rescue site and it was only when he embraced me that he was able to ask if my mother and sister were alive. Now, these things are dealt with instantly.
d) My dog Jimmy, my friend who ran with me on the beach every morning and slept in my bed, had been through a horrible time. One day I left and never came back. Nobody told him that I had died. For almost three months he was depressed and sad. When I opened the door upon my return, he was lying on the floor and when he saw me, his ears stood up, his eyes widened and he ran towards me, jumping up to my shoulders and screaming and shouting like a human being. I believe that he was crying of joy. He did not want to leave my side for the next few days. A great memory indeed.

Why do you feel this story resonates so much and is still fascinating and strangely uplifting after all these decades?

This is a story that is almost impossible to repeat. These days, technology with GPS and smartphones (which would be in every passenger’s pocket) would make finding the plane a question of minutes. It’s a story like the Beatles story, it gets better with time, because it can’t be repeated. It has all the ingredients that make it unique. People like to hear about it, like to experience or answer the question that lies in their hearts: How would I have reacted in a situation like that? They want to know, but without experiencing it.

What were the last 10 days before you set off on your journey like?

So many thoughts went through my mind. I knew that I was getting quite weak and had to attempt the escape before it was too late. Also there were almost no more bodies. What would happen then? When the last one was done. I did not want to be there. I kept urging Roberto to leave. I sensed that I was approaching a point of no return. On the last day, when I had taken the decision to leave the next morning, I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t know whether I would have the courage in the morning. But the fear of the outcome of staying in the fuselage helped my decision and I broke the umbilical cord with my friends and the fuselage. They stayed back with big hopes that died after the third day. I was going to be back with rescuers in two days and 10 days later I had not returned. They thought that we had died, and I can only grasp the surface of what they were thinking and living.

As you all faced mortality, any confessions, any secrets exchanged? You were all too young for regrets, but what did you and others believe they would miss…Or did you not think about that in order to stay positive and hopeful?

Besides how I was going to die, one other thought consumed me every quiet moment in the fuselage. I knew that there was a girl in the world that I would never meet, because I was going to die. Had I not boarded that aeroplane, I would have met her, fallen in love and had a family. I would never experience the joy of love and having children.

As a professional race car driver…one of the most dangerous sports, were you no longer afraid of death?

My father was the founder of the Uruguayan Racing Drivers Association. He took me to racetracks since I was very young, and his life revolved around racing cars and motorcycles. Obviously, when I turned 17 or 18. I wanted to race very much, but I didn’t dare. I saw racecar drivers as superheroes, I loved the smell of racing oil and the sounds…but I did not dare to do it.
When I came back from the Andes, I said to myself that I had almost died without trying something which was very important in my life. It could have been being a doctor, a carpenter, a dentist, an architect, or a gardener…but, no…it was racing cars. So I started racing, and created my own team. It was not that I was not afraid of death, or that I was immortal. It had to do with achieving what I thought was important for me. It was such a great decision, because through racing I found the love of my life, my wife Veronique.

As a television personality you were again confident to speak up, was this another example of fearlessness after surviving?

I love movies and at some point in my life, I wanted to produce films but this was very hard to do in a small country like Uruguay, especially in the 80’s. The closest thing was television production and I started creating sports programmes which then developed into a television company that produced content for TV stations. My company became very successful, producing five different programmes every week. I saved a lot of money working very hard and doing the work of 10 people. As I did not want to pay for a presenter, I did the intros myself for several of my programmes and paid myself a very good salary! My wife Veronique was responsible for all the financial aspects of the company and also presented two of my TV programmes for 22 years. I look back and see that we had a lot of fun working together.

Fernando and his family paying respects to those that perished

About yourself before the crash, you said: “I lived for the moment, drifting with the tide, waiting for my future to reveal itself, always happy to let others lead the way.” How did the events turn you into a leader?

If you can define what a leader is, maybe I can answer the question. I always listened and did not talk much, but when the time came – every time I can recall in my life – I always decided by myself and went where I wanted to go. Perhaps I was not the leader of the pack in my youth, but I was not in the background either. I just took my time and knew when to act. I paced myself and I think that I behave the same way now. Maybe I did not change and people have changed the way they see me, and because of the results of some things in my life, they translate that into leadership.

An example of the many life lessons the crash and survival taught Fernando.