It is a question we’ve all asked ourselves. Marooned in some wilderness, with no hope of rescue and fighting for survival, could we become cannibals?
For Jose Luis ‘Coche’ Inciarte, it was a dreadful life or death decision he was forced to take when the plane he was travelling in crashed in the Andes on October 13, 1972.
As Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 took off from Montevideo with 45 passengers and crew, Coche chatted with his friends, with no idea of the nightmare that was to follow.
Bound for Santiago, Chile, the inexperienced pilot made a mistake with the instrument readings and the plane struck a mountain, shearing off both wings and the tail section.
The fuselage slid down the mountain 2,379ft before striking ice and snow on a glacier.
Twelve men died on impact, another five within hours and one more a week later. Tragedy struck again on the 17th day of their ordeal when an avalanche killed eight more of the passengers.
The survivors had little food – one chocolate-covered peanut had to last 3 days – and no source of heat in the harsh conditions at 11,800 ft altitude. Nights saw the temperature drop to -30°C.
Most of them hadn’t seen snow before, lacked warm clothing and medical supplies.
Ironically search aircraft flew over the site several times but couldn’t see the white fuselage against the snow and rescue efforts were called off after eight days.
Coche and his fellow survivors knew the answer to staying alive but it was too awful to contemplate. They agonised, prayed to God for guidance and finally decided they had no choice but to eat the dead who were classmates, friends or relatives.
‘There was no other option if you wanted to stay alive,’ said Coche. ‘We made a meeting between all and we argued whether to do it or not to do it, not to do it seemed to mean to die, everybody decided to eat.
‘When you went to take a piece of flesh, the body of your friend, their frozen body, the hand doesn’t obey and you have to make a great effort of energy and mind to make your arm obey, and then it obeys, not immediately.
‘It was the same with opening mouth to put it inside the mouth and swallow.’
The survivors were rescued 72 days later after Dr Roberto Caness, then a 19-year-old medical student, Nando Parrado and Antonio Vizint trekked for 10 days to get help. They found Chilean Sergio Catalan who gave them food and alerted the authorities.
Their harrowing ordeal was captured in the 1993 film Alive.
Coche admits: ‘I had to make a great effort of energy and mind to be able to eat the flesh of my friends’, but he denied his anguish lives with him today.
‘No, the story doesn’t live with me. I live my life as I imagined in those days and when I am having problems I think about the Andes and the problem seems to be very little against that, so it helps me’.
Looking back at the desperation of those days in the Andes he says: ‘Most days I thought I was going to go out from there… I had great confidence with those who’d gone to look for help reaching someplace, and they did it.
‘But other days, in those terrible days that we were waiting for them, I [thought] that they were not going to reach any place, so I put my date of dying on December 24th’.
Coche praises the accuracy of Alive, narrated by John Malkovich and starring Ethan Hawke, apart from one tiny thing.
‘My actor had a guitar; I’ve never played in my whole life,’ he says.
Feature image via CGTN America