Parrado’s story illustrates the human capacity to overcome despair and achieve the impossible
Thursday, April 25, 2013
Parrado is a survivor of the infamous 1972 plane crash of the Uruguayan rugby team in the Andes Mountains. The plane was carrying the team to a match in Chile when the pilot lost his course and slammed into the Andes’ snowy and desolate peaks at 14,000 feet. The crash was followed by 72 long days marked by freezing temperatures, death, an avalanche, more death, and starvation before the survivors were rescued – a saga that Parrado unfolded before a rapt audience in Symphony Hall.
“It is a miracle. I shouldn’t be here,” Parrado stated matter-of-factly at the start of his talk. “I will put images, thoughts, and feelings in your mind that will allow you to think in a different way, and understand how far a human being has to go to survive.”
Using photographs from the 1972 journey, as well as more recent National Geographic and History Channel video footage and images, Parrado relayed the story upon which Piers Paul Read's 1974 book “Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors,” and the 1993 movie “Alive,” in which Parrado was portrayed by Ethan Hawke, are based.
Parrado had invited his mother and sister on the trip. When the plane crashed, he sustained a head injury and was in a coma for four days. He awoke to the grim reality that he was in a plane wreck, he had lost his mother and some of his friends, and his sister was on the brink of death. He held her in his arms as she died.
Following the crash, which had snapped the wings and tail off the fuselage, the team worked together to seal off the fuselage to prevent freezing to death, and waited in vain for rescue crews. On the 10th day, they heard over their small transistor radio that the search had been called off.
“They condemned us to die,” recalled Parrado, who was 21 at the time of the crash and described the gripping dearth of food and water – “the thirst is as horrible as in the Sahara desert” – and how they developed painful blisters and sores on their lips and mouths from eating snow. He recalled sub-zero temperatures and the way the men huddled together and breathed on each other as the only source of warmth. They made a pact to give their bodies to be eaten if they perished in order to help others survive.
“You only have one option, and it’s very hard to understand that decision,” said Parrado, alluding to the survivors’ consumption of the crash victims’ flesh. “That was the only option. Humans get used to horrific things.”
Ultimately, looking around and seeing that they were all dying, Parrado and two other survivors cobbled together makeshift and inadequate climbing gear and set out to find rescue. One of the three men had to turn back, but Parrado and teammate Roberto Canessa hiked a staggering 10 ½ days in the Andes looking for help. They finally spotted a man on horseback across a river, with whom they communicated by throwing a stone wrapped in paper, which initiated the eventual rescue.
In the end, 16 people survived the ordeal, and 29 had died.
“I wake up every day and live in the present,” Parrado said of his philosophy since the crash. “Enjoy the ride. Enjoy your life. And don’t lose your connection to that, because nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
Parrado said he has not been haunted by the crash. In fact, he and the other survivors have gone on to build successful careers and lives, and Parrado described his success as a businessman and a life blessed with his beloved wife and children.
“Of the 16 survivors that are alive, we are now 140. We have gotten married, had children and grandchildren,” he said. “So it’s a story of life.”
Following his speech, Parrado received a standing ovation. The audience was invited to submit questions for a Q&A session moderated by Phil Redo, managing director of WGBH Radio, during which Parrado fielded philosophical questions with honesty and depth. Asked whether he would delete this episode from his life if he could, Parrado had this reflection: “If you delete the bad things of your past, you will also delete the present. That other life does not exist.”
He was asked about survival skills, why bad things happen to good people, and whether his memories of the tragedy 40 years ago recede as time goes by.
“Feelings fade and memories fade, but the love of your friends and family are still there,” he explained. “But there is no suffering. You cannot suffer your whole life – it’s not worth it.”
At the start of the evening, Parrado paid tribute to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, and again at the close of his speech he said the Marathon attack illustrates life’s unpredictability and apparent injustice sometimes.
“Nobody knows what is going to happen tomorrow. Love your life,” Parrado signed off at the close of the evening.
Parrado’s talk concluded the 2012-2013 season of Lesley’s Boston Speakers Series. During an introduction at the start of the evening, Lesley University President Joseph B. Moore reflected on the season’s seven diverse and fascinating speakers, who delivered riveting and timely talks, whether it was Erskine Bowles discussing economic reform as the country went off the “fiscal cliff,” or President Bill Clinton speaking in October on the night of the first presidential debate.
“It has been our privilege to present the Boston Speakers Series this year,” said Moore.
To read about the 2013-2014 lineup for Lesley University’s Boston Speakers Series, click here.
See the full speakers schedule and read coverage of the events.
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