Gustavo Zerbino
Rotary Club of Montevideo, Uruguay

The moment before the plane crashed, I took off my seat belt, stood up, and held on to the ceiling. 

The plane hit the mountain and broke apart exactly where I had been sitting. My friend in the seat next to me fell out of the plane and died. 

I was with my rugby team, the Old Christians Club from Montevideo, Uruguay. It was October 1972, and we were flying over the Andes on our way to Santiago, Chile, to play in a rugby championship. There were 40 passengers — teammates as well as friends and family — and five crew members. I was sitting by the window looking at the mountain peaks far below, when suddenly they began to appear closer. I asked my friend, who was sitting in the aisle seat, to let me by and I went to talk to the pilots. They said not to worry, but then they looked out and saw the high peaks and told me to sit back down. 

After the crash, I thought it must be true that the dead could still think, because I could not believe that I could be alive. All the seats were piled on top of each other. There were dead people, injured people, people struggling to get out. 

We had crashed on the Glacier of Tears. We had no food. Temperatures fell to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit at night, when it snowed and there was wind. By day, when the sky was clear and the sun was directly overhead, it got very hot. 

There is so much to say about our 72 days in the mountains. There are hundreds of documentaries. There are the book and the movie Alive. 

We were very young and we adapted quickly, because we had no choice. The only clothes we had were the ones we were wearing: leather shoes, nylon socks, pants, a shirt, a blazer, a necktie. When another person died, you would put on their pants and you had two pairs of pants, or two pairs of socks. 

Every night we prayed the rosary. For three reasons: first, to thank God because we had survived that day and to ask for a next day just as good. The second reason was that saying the rosary was like having a windshield wiper for all of the negative thoughts we would have during the darkness of night. And the third reason was that every five minutes the rosary came back around to you. If you were to fall asleep, you would be frozen like a statue, so we would nudge each other to pray.

We put a radio together from the pieces of other radios and heard that the search had been called off. The world had abandoned us, so we built a solidarity where the only goal was to live. We learned that the important thing in life is not what happens, but what we do with what happens, which is the only thing that’s up to us.

There are no extraordinary human beings. There are only common, ordinary human beings, like you and me, who are able to do extraordinary things if we connect to love and to passion if we do things that are more important than ourselves.

We made a pact that if we died, our friends could use our bodies so they might live. We understood it as something logical. Our teammate Gustavo Nicolich wrote a letter to his mother, which I brought with me when we were rescued. He tells her that we had started to eat the flesh from the bodies of our dead friends. He says we asked God from the depths of our beings not to allow it to come to pass. But the moment arrived, and we had to accept it with courage and faith. 

This is something that makes us proud. We chose life and not death. Sixteen of us survived to tell our story.

Telling people about what happened to us has never bothered me at all. It is the best tribute we can offer our friends who died on the mountain, because they were wonderful human beings who gave us everything so we could live.

I never think about the fact that I was in a plane that fell. I take planes everywhere. I do things, I don’t worry about things. Today, I’m president of a multinational pharmaceutical company in Uruguay. I’m with the rugby union. I played for the Uruguayan national rugby team. I’m on the UNICEF advisory board. I work with a foundation called Rugby Without Borders. I’ve been a Rotarian for 23 years. I have six children. I have done many things. And the Andes accident is just one more thing that happened to me.

For the world, it was a huge thing. But people’s lives are all unique and unrepeatable. All the things you live through are unique to you. Life has been very generous to me. It gave me the opportunity to live, learn, share, and be thankful every day that I am alive.

— As told to Briscila Greene and Diana Schober