Alive, by Piers Paul Read, is the story of how a Uruguayan rugby team and their friends who survived for ten weeks in the Andes after their chartered plane to Chile crashed. The plane took off on October 12, 1972, from Montevideo for Santiago. Reports of bad weather in the Andes brought the plane down in Mendoza, a small Argentinean town close to the Andes. The boys were disappointed; however, the next day the weather cleared so the plane took off for the Planchon Pass to the south. The flight was routine and the atmosphere relaxed until the pilot turned toward the north to Santiago, Chile. Soon after, the plane hit an air pocket and plunged several hundred feet. There was nervous joking in the cabin until the plane hit a second air pocket that brought it out of the clouds. The real panic hit when the view out the windows was not the lush green valleys of Chile but of a rocky mountain ten feet from the wing.
The wing hit the mountain, broke off, and flipped over the body of the plane, cutting off the tail. The plane then plummeted to the ground. However, instead of smashing into the rocks, it landed on its belly and slid down the valley like a toboggan. Although thirty-two out of the original forty-five passengers survived the crash, only twenty-seven survived the night. Soon the survivors became weak because they only received one square of chocolate and a capful of wine a day. Finally, on the tenth day, the religious debate over whether or not to eat the dead bodies was finally discussed. Though everyone decided that it was the right and only thing to do, several could not get past the physical repulsion. Once it became apparent that...
The Victoria Plaza Hotel, where we stayed, was thick with intrigue as much richer publishers and more experienced writers competed for the deal.
My strong suit was being an Englishman rather than an American; being closer to the age of the survivors; and, above all, sharing their Roman Catholic religion.
I was chosen; the deal was done. I spent the next two and a half months in Uruguay interviewing the survivors. Almost at once, the journalistic project took on a pastoral dimension.
Unwilling to admit that they were still children by talking to their parents, that they were unhinged by talking to psychiatrists, or that they had done wrong by talking to priests, they unburdened themselves to me. We became close: they called me 'the 17th survivor'.
When I returned to Montevideo with the manuscript of my book in October 1973, some of the survivors felt that their confidence had been betrayed by my dispassionate description of the eating of human flesh.
They demanded that these 'details' be cut out of the book. Heated arguments continued for almost a week. Legally, I was on strong ground because Edward Burlingame, foreseeing problems of this kind, had given the survivors the right to read and comment on the finished manuscript prior to publication, but to demand only the removal of falsehoods, inaccuracies and inventions.
There were no falsehoods, inaccuracies or inventions, and I had tapes of my interviews to prove it.
This did not prevent the survivors from threatening to disown the book. It was not just the 'details' they disliked, but the contrast between the strength of some and the weakness of others in the dire conditions they faced on the mountain.
One or two sidled up to me to say that while I had caught the character of their friends perfectly, 'you have got me wrong'. There was also confusion about my narrative method, which was to let the story speak for itself. 'You don't say we were wonderful guys who did the right thing.
'When the book is published we will have to leave Uruguay. If we stay we will be stoned in the street.'
I asked them to trust me and, thanks to the strong bond of friendship that had been built up in the course of my research, the survivors decided to give me the benefit of the doubt.
Alive was published in the spring of 1974. Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa vigorously promoted the book in the United States and later Europe. It was an international bestseller. It was translated into a dozen languages and sold more than five million copies worldwide.
Were the survivors forced to flee from Uruguay? Were they stoned in the street, as they had feared? Quite the contrary. They became national heroes.
Cannibalism may have been the bait that hooked some readers, but it was the courage and comradeship of the young Uruguayans that moved people. Of the many letters I have received, not one has criticised the survivors for what they did.
Rather, readers and reviewers alike expressed an awed admiration. This story, wrote one reviewer, 'of a group of human beings who rose, in extremis, to heights beyond their own, or anyone else's expectations … left me, at least, feeling a good deal better than usual about belonging to the human race'.
In 1992, 20 years after the accident, Touchstone Pictures made a film of Alive. Frank Marshall directed: he had made Arachnophobia, which did for spiders what Alfred Hitchcock did for birds.
Ethan Hawke played Nando Parrado, Josh Hamilton, Roberto Canessa and Bruce Ramsay was Carlitos Páez, the son of a painter and one of the more colourful characters among the survivors.
The film was shot in the Canadian Rockies. Much trouble was taken to cast actors resembling the passengers on the ill-fated flight - both the living and the dead. The technical adviser was, inevitably, Nando Parrado.
During those difficult days in the Victoria Plaza Hotel, Parrado had been the one survivor who had raised no objections to the book. With good reason.
A number of the others were courageous but all admitted that it was Nando's determination to seek help that saved them. His mother was killed in the accident; his sister Susanna died some days later. Rather than destroy Nando's morale, this only made him more determined to get back to his father in Montevideo.
This same strong will has been apparent in Nando's life over the three decades since the accident. The survivors are now middle-aged men - ranchers, businessmen, professionals - with wives, children and even grandchildren.
Some spent the money they made from their share of the proceeds of Alive to study in the US or set up businesses. Roberto Canessa is now a paediatric heart specialist and occasional politician; Parrado has flourished as businessman, journalist, sports star and entrepreneur.
Most striking of all has been his success on the lecture circuit. Log on to his website, Parrado.com, and you read the long list of banks, airlines and businesses of every kind that have invited him to make the keynote speech at their conferences and seminars - 'the best speaker in over 30 years', according to Hewlett-Packard.
He is now a major, not a minor, celebrity and in April he will publish his own account of what he learnt from his ordeal, The Miracle in the Andes.
At first, the other survivors looked on Nando's self-promotion with deep suspicion. They owed their lives to his determination but felt that he lacked a sense of solidarity with the group or 'team spirit'.
But, as Nando rightly pointed out, it was open to any of them to do the same. Now a number are following his example. Eduardo Strauch, now an architect, Alvaro Mangino, now a businessman, and Carlitos Páez, now an advertising executive, have their own websites and offer themselves as speakers at corporate events. There is a survivors' website.
And next month Channel Five will broadcast the attempts of four British celebrities to retrace the steps of Parrado and Canessa. In the same conditions?
Not quite. Unlike Parrado and Canessa, they will not have lived for two months in arctic conditions on a diet of raw human flesh. They will be accompanied by a camera crew and a director with cellphones to summon helicopters in case of need.
As a kind of Big Brother in the Andes it may be entertaining, but unlike the young Uruguayans I met all those years ago, they will not have stood face to face with death.
- 'Alive: Back to the Andes', Channel Five, March 22 and 29, 8pm. Piers Paul Read's new book, 'Hell and Other Destinations', is published by Darton, Longman & Todd on Wednesday, priced £12.95