A plane full of young people crashes violently against the snow-capped peaks of the Andes mountain range while one of them is heard praying the Hail Mary hoping to survive the accident. This is one of the most iconic scenes from the Live! Movie. by Franck Marshall ; a film that any Latin American has seen at least once and that he remembers as one of the most inspiring works on human resilience and the power of faith.
However, for Carlitos Páez , a proud lecturer who gives talks on motivation and teamwork all over the world, this scene portrays one of his hardest moments since in real life he was the young man who was praying while the flight 571 of the Uruguayan Air Force was rushing uncontrollably into the snowy desert of the mountains.
“We star in a 70-day story. An enormity. It is enough time to get married, get married and get divorced, “says Carlitos smiling, who at 65 years old visited Mexico City to tell how the experience of the ” Miracle of the Andes “ – as many know his story and that of his companions- it was actually a constant struggle against “No”.
The odyssey went like this: on October 13, 1973, the Fairchild Hiller FH-227 military plane crossed the mountain range with 40 passengers and five crew members carrying the Old Christians rugby team. A navigation error by the pilot caused the aircraft to crash on one of the cliffs of the mountain range in Mendoza (Argentina). The plane was trapped in the so-called Tear Glacier after the impact of the collision, as well as the detachment of several seats, left only 27 survivors facing temperatures of up to 42 ° C below zero.
Marcelo Pérez, the captain of the rugby team, took the role of leader to organize the young people to condition what was left of the plane’s fuselage to function as a shelter and to ration the very little food they had while awaiting rescue. However, eight days after the accident, the survivors heard on a small radio that the Chilean and Uruguayan authorities had decided to suspend the search missions.
What little food they had soon ran out, and on the Glacier of Tears there were no animals or vegetation that could be served. It was then that, 10 days after having eaten, the group made the decision to feed on the bodies of the deceased that had been frozen by the perpetual snow of the mountains.
“The process of making the decision to feed on our dead companions was much less lengthy than people think. We had lived 10 days without eating anything at all and we faced the sad reality of knowing that they were not looking for us anymore, ”says Páez.
Sixteen days after the plane crashed, an avalanche buried the survivors, claiming the lives of eight people, including that of Captain Marcelo Pérez. During the following weeks, three more young men would die from infections in their wounds, while the strongest young people in the group (including Carlitos) would make several expedition attempts to find a way out of the mountains.
Finally, on December 12, 1972, Nando Parrado, Roberto Canessa and Antonio Vizintín would go out in the final search for the exit of the Andes. On the third day of the hike and after encountering a desolate landscape of kilometers and kilometers of mountains, Vizintín would return to the fuselage to allow Canessa and Parrado to continue with their supplies.
The two young men walked for 10 days until they were able to come down from the mountains and meet a muleteer named Sergio Catalán who would finally help them get help to rescue the rest of the survivors.
Thus, on December 22, the 14 remaining survivors finally returned home after spending 72 days in the most frozen of hell.
“These 16 resurrected people surprised the world by surviving for two months on little food. The explanations must be sought in a field other than medicine and science. We have no logical explanation and the answer to its survival escapes any existing criteria. And if I were not a doctor, I would have to be obliged to believe in a miracle, ”said Dr. Eduardo Arragada, the doctor who provided the first care to the survivors.
We talked with Carlitos about what it was like to live in the Andes for those three months, making brutal decisions to return home and the importance of leadership over oneself to work as a team.
On the importance of attitude in the face of adversity
Entrepreneur en Español (ENT): You often say that his story was a constant struggle against “No”. Can you explain us a little more?
Carlitos Páez (CP): It is a story whose great merit was saying “Yes” to “No”, and that was thanks to a group attitude. We received big “No” in the Andes: the accident itself, receiving the news that they were no longer looking for us, making the decision to feed on our dead comrades, finding the tail of the plane and not being able to make the radio work … In our history the The big constant was “No”, but we always said “Yes.” I think the big theme of our story was attitude.
On the importance of true teamwork
ENT: How difficult was it to get everyone to work at the same level?
CP: We didn’t even know the concept of teamwork, but the human being is designed to do it and we put it into practice. Of course not everyone worked together and there were some who did nothing, but those who matter are the ones who did do something to get ahead.
On how to deal with crises
ENT: In the 1993 film they put a sequence where the actor who plays you prayed the Hail Mary, this to show how long the fall really was. What do you think at a time like that?
CP: All of us who get on a plane think it is going to fall, but when it falls we say ‘This can’t be happening to me’. It was a Hail Mary that I prayed as fast as I could, but you have to remember how long that prayer is and while I was praying, many things were happening: the plane broke in the middle, the cold began to get in, the shouting in a more absolute chaos and then fell into the most absolute silence when the engines were turned off and we began to slide through the snow.
ENT: How was that first moment that frozen hell? How did they decide that they should be activated?
CP: We come from a country (Uruguay) where there is no snow. The first thing we did was look for the pilot. We went to the cockpit and saw the dead captain and the copilot was dying. The mechanic was left, but he was a bit stunned, and with him we tried to get as much information as possible. However, in a short time we already knew more about mechanics than he did.
There began the fight to get out. First, because two planes passed above us that we thought had seen us and then when we heard the news on the radio that they were no longer looking for us. That was the most crucial moment of the odyssey because it gave us the strength to understand that from then on we depended on ourselves and not on outsiders to survive.
ENT: In your book you tell how a friend of yours was the one who precisely told you that now it was your turn to save yourselves …
CP: Gustavo Nicolich – who later died in the avalanche – told me: ‘Carlitos, I have good news to give you: I just heard on the Chilean radio that they are not looking for us anymore.’ I said ‘How good news, son of the great …?!’ and he replied: ‘This is good news because now we depend on ourselves and not on outsiders.’
If I think about 47 years later, I realize that that was the moment when we realized where we were standing and that we had to call on our own resources to save ourselves. It was when we stopped waiting and started acting.
On tolerance for frustration
ENT: If you could say something to the young Carlitos from that Friday the 13th who is about to get on the Fairchild, what would you say to him?
CP: That Carlitos was transformed throughout history. The truth is that I was useless. I had a babysitter and breakfast in bed. I was transforming myself and, personally, I am grateful for having lived that story. I give 100 lectures a year and try to help companies understand teamwork, tolerance for frustration, and strength in the face of extreme change.
According to National Geographic , the “Miracle of the Andes” is the most impressive story of survival starring ordinary people of all time. For example, to climb Everest there is a waiting list. It’s a matter of determination: I want to, I train, I do it. But in our case we couldn’t prepare.
We did not know how to move in the snow or at the height of the mountain (the maximum height in Uruguay is 500 meters). Remember that we were dressed in jeans and loafers at almost 30 degrees below zero. Also, sinking into virgin snow that has never been stepped on. The truth was very difficult to live like this.
ENT: You just mention a very important point: tolerance for frustration. How do you do that in a circumstance like the one they lived in the Andes?
CP: It was a purely group issue. When you fell, the others lifted you up. It was my turn to be shown the way and it was my turn to show it to someone else. This is how groups work best. You are not always on top.
About making tough decisions
ENT: What is the decision-making process like in a crisis situation like this? Is there “paralysis by analysis”?
CP: We realized that we had the most sacred of rights, which was to return home to our family. A sacred right. The hunger you have in civilization is not the same as the one you feel in such a crisis.
ENT: That wasn’t the only difficult decision they had to make in the mountain range, was it?
CP: No, we make thousands of decisions and many are wrong. But like I say, it doesn’t matter if you make a wrong decision if you have passion and attitude. An error serves the same as a triumph.
ENT: Precisely, how do you move forward when you make a wrong decision?
CP: It happened to us. We made the decision to go the wrong route. We did not know that we were 10 kilometers from the Argentine side of the mountain range and we went to the opposite side, the Chilean.
On what is found in crises
ENT: Have you ever felt that what was lived in the mountain does not apply outside of it?
CP: For me, God was very present in the Andes. Later in civilization, no. They were moments of enormous purity that I would love to experience again. Years later I returned to the mountains convinced that I was going to experience them again, but it was not the same.
ENT: How important was the family to get out of the mountain range?
CP: Very important. Our goal was never to have 20 movies made or 36 books written with our history. No, we fight over simpler things: to go home to Mom and Dad. The scale of values is put in its proper measure in extreme situations.
ENT: I have read the book that your father, the painter Carlos Páez Vilaró, wrote about how he lived those 70 days in which you were lost ( Between my son and I, the Moon ). He was one of the people who never stopped looking because he never believed you were dead.
CP: Yes, I spent more than two months without seeing my father, but I knew that the logical thing was that he was fine. The problem was for him and my mother because they didn’t know what had happened to me. I felt him very close all the time.
The title was taken over by Dad because that link was with my mother. When I got home I told my mom that I always saw the moon from the mountain range because I thought she was probably looking at it too. And she told me that during that time, she would go out for a walk to the promenade to see the Moon thinking that I was seeing it.
ENT: You had your birthday in the Andes …
CP: I turned 19 years old at an altitude of 4,200 meters under an avalanche. Curiously, my father is one day after me, on November 1. We were buried for three days to get out of the avalanche and that day we succeeded.
On true leadership
ENT: How important is leadership in this story?
CP: Those who do not lead are left alone, but you have to understand that there are times when you have to lead and others follow someone else. In our history it was like this: there were leaders for certain things. It was my turn to live this story that seems wonderful to me, remembering those who accompanied us and had to leave, but which shows the power of individual effort to make teamwork succeed.