Review: Miracle in the Andes by Nando Parrado

Miracle in the Andes Miracle in the Andes [2006] – ★★★★

The author of this book – Nando Parrado – is one of the sixteen survivors of the crash of the Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 deep in the Andes in 1972. After the crash, twenty-eight survivors battled inhumane conditions high in the mountains to survive and only sixteen made it alive after seventy-two days. Even though the previous book Alive [1974] detailed the story, Parrado’s book, which came out in 2006, is a completely different account of this experience which enables us to understand what it is really like to face death every minute of one’s life period, and then  – after surviving the unsurvivable –  do it all again twice. Paying a special tribute to the determination and courage of others, Parrado’s very moving and personal book is a “must-read” for everyone – so life-changing its observations and conclusions can be for a reader. 

Parrado starts his book with a vivid portrayal of his life before the crash, introducing the “main characters” of his tale – his family members, close friends and fellow members of the amateur Uruguayan rugby team. Any other account of this would have been boring – but not Parrado’s. With every line he writes, we can feel the emotion he experiences as he describes his love for his mother (a passenger of the crashed plane), father, two sisters (one Susy also a passenger of the crashed plane), and the love that he feels for each of his team members on the rugby team, including his close friend Panchito (Francisco “Panchito” Abal (a passenger on the doomed flight)). There emerges in our minds a happy and carefree life which Nando lived before the crash when he did not think too much about the future or how lucky he was to draw each breath.

What then follows is the disturbing description of the crash which happened as the airplane – Fairchild Hiller FH-227 – passed over the Andes, one of the most treacherous places on Earth. The passengers – largely members of the Uruguayan amateur rugby team and their family and friends – realised that their aircraft was flying too low and started to express concern, before the accident happened in a fraction of a second. A fortunate turn of events meant that the plane landed in a way which was not fatal for some of the passengers, meaning that there were survivors. After that, Parrado’s account is fascinating as he details how survivors came together to work as one unit to battle unimaginable cold (including the lack of sufficient oxygen at the altitude of more than 12, 000 feet), thirst and finally hunger (there is a fair amount in the book on cannibalism, the most controversial aspect of the story). The survivors came up with an ingenious way to produce water from snow as they pinned their hopes on both rescue coming to them soon and on an airplane radio working so they can send a distress message. After two months in the mountains, Parrado and Roberto Canessa finally decided to venture beyond their place of crash to seek help –a  decision that everyone knew was more likely than not to result in a failure and death. Parrado and Canessa’s ten days track is the third miracle (after the crash and their two months’ survival) since both did not know precisely where they were going; they did not have any mountaineering equipment, warm clothes or skills; and were physically and mentally exhausted because of their injuries and prolonged hunger.

Nando Parrado is a great narrator – we see the group’s struggle on the mountain from his point of view as he slowly comes to certain realisations than few people living in our modern society would have come to in their lifetimes. When death is so close every day, the meaning of life is suddenly becoming very clear. Parrado starts to live each day drawing courage from the love he feels for his father, a practical man who never gave up in extreme situations. We learn from his account that a right state of mind is as much important for survival as one’s physical condition. Parrado sometimes thinks about the beauty of the Andes – “there was incredible beauty here…in the hugeness and power of the mountains, in the windswept snowfields that glowed so perfectly in white and in the astounding beauty of the Andean sky” [Nando Parrado, 2006: 44]. However, most of the time, he knows that this still beauty also means there are no humans for miles and miles around, and survivors have to live from breath to breath, from a heartbeat to a heartbeat: “I began to see life as it must appear to an animal straggling to survive – as a simple game of win or lose, life or death, risk and opportunity” [Nando Parrado, 2006: 68].

It is probably the sincerity with which Nando Parrado writes his account which is the most admirable thing in the book. He admits he is far from perfect and refuses to see himself as a hero. He makes it perfectly clear that there were other more courageous people with him every step of the way, and like everyone else – he felt fear and despair most of the time in the mountains. There was no one leading character or one hero in this tale – every person in that crashed plane was a hero in his or her own way, especially since each person’s circumstances were different and it was often pure chance that decided whether one person lives and another dies (and not their level of bravery). For example, for Susy, a very seriously injured person who was Parrado’s sister, trying to draw a breath and stay alert might have been a heroic achievement in itself in an effort not to give up. Equally, Diego Storm’s single action of getting Nando on one night closer to warmth after Nando was deemed hopelessly injured was quick-thinking that saved a life. “…the mountains showed me there were many forms of bravery, and, for me, even the quietest ones among us showed great courage simply by living from day to day” [Nando Parrado, 2006: 79], writes Parrado. 

Miracle in the Andes is more than one’s account of what happened in the Andes after a horrific plane crash in 1972. Parrado pays a special tribute to other people and their actions so they are never forgotten, and, in this way, this is also a story about the bravery of others – about people who decided to work together and help each other to survive against all odds. The author is clear that his actions were not some heroic feat. Rather, he wants everyone to view his account as a tale of immense loss, hopelessness and despair, after which one finds hope and vows never to give up. The result is a moving and sincere account which is also very insightful and inspirational. 

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