This lonely metal cross sticks up from a pile of rocks in the Andes Mountains, elevation about 11,800 feet, just along the border between Argentina and Chile. Forty-two years ago today, on October 13, 1972, Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 crashed here after a navigational error. The plane was carrying a football team from Montevideo, Uruguay to a match in Chile. Twelve of the 45 passengers were killed immediately. For the survivors, the crash was just the beginning of a harrowing fight for their lives. Over the next two months the 27 survivors, realizing the remoteness of the terrain and the circumstances of the crash made rescue impossible, resorted to eating the flesh of the dead. Ultimately three of the survivors embarked on a daring trek across the mountains to get help. They were successful. Sixteen were ultimately rescued, and the incident became known as the “Miracle of the Andes.”

The curious and unlikely circumstances of this crash have fascinated people because they resulted in a situation where people had to test the limits of their humanity–and their faith–in order to survive. All the survivors were Catholics, many of them very devout. In making decisions about whether to cannibalize the dead (note–they did not kill anyone for this purpose) or what risks to take in order to bring back help, the Flight 571 survivors had to confront the most basic issues of what life is worth and whether morality is truly relative. Most of us never have to face these issues as starkly as these people did. There is a lot of horror and tragedy in this story, but there’s also something deeply life-affirming about it, which is why I think it’s remembered.

The Andes flight disaster was chronicled in a popular 1974 book by Piers Paul Read called Alive, made into a movie in 1993. In 2006, Nando Parrado, one of the three who went for help and came back, wrote a book about it called Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home. The crash memorial was established a few years after the event, and after all the dead were buried. It incorporates some pieces of the plane’s wreckage that have survived.

The photo of the Andes crash memorial is by David Williams/BoomerKC and was donated into the public domain.