The story of the 16 survivors of the 1972 Andes flight disaster is so incredible it reads like fiction: a plane crashed in the Andes and more than half its passengers perish. Those who survived managed to live on the summit of the mountain for over two months, before two brave members of the group decide to embark on a rescue mission. The story became legendary not only because of the dire situation faced by the team, but also because tabloids seized on lurid stories of cannabilism, reducing the tragic story into cheap sensationalism. British writer Piers Paul Read’s excellent Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors is a first-rate account of the heroism and tragedy that faced the people whose lives were indefinitely marked by the events of October 13th, 1972.
Similar to Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Read’s tome takes on a novelist’s approach, but with the unerring eye of a journalist. With the support of the survivors, along with exhaustive research, Read is able to recreate the terrifying accident, as well as plotting out the interminible seventy two days that the survivors had to endure. He doesn’t gloss over any details – and addresses the instances of cannabilism, which did in fact happen after the group of survivors exhausted all avenues of survival. He doesn’t treat the potentially scandalous topic lightly, nor does he ignore it (to do so would smack of cowardice); instead, the topic is handled with the care and dignity required – the men who were driven to eating the flesh of their friends did so with heavy hearts – and some of the passengers who initially survived the impact of the crash (along with an ensuing avalanche), refused to eat the meat until it was too late and they themselves perished.
Like the Donner Party, the story of the 1972 Andes flight disaster has been reduced by many to a story of people eating people. It’s a terrible impulse by many that is reductive and is terribly insulting. Read recounts many acts of bravery and heroism among the survivors – as well as those who died. But he doesn’t make the people in the story plaster saints or two-dimensional – he includes moments of infighting, subterfuge, as well as instances when members of the group failed to rise to the occasion.
Like the best of nonfiction, Read’s writing remains gripping and engrossing – it reads like a top-shelf thriller. And because the story is true and the outcome at once so tragic and uplifting, readers are left breathless because of the knowledge that what was written actually happened.