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  • 8/13/2006

Where Is My Mother?

Nando Parrado's courage made him a survivor.

On October 13, 1972, a plane carrying young Nando Parrado and his Uruguayan rugby teammates crashed in the Andes mountain range. It's amazing that anyone survived at all, with temperatures well below zero and given their precarious location. But many of them did, with some badly injured. In this excerpt from his book -- featured in the June 2006 issue of Reader's Digest -- Parrado, for the first time, explains how grave his condition was and what he and his fellow teammates had to endure in order to survive.

I lay unconscious, my face covered in blood and black bruises, my head swollen to the size of a basketball. Though my surviving teammates took my pulse and were surprised my heart was still beating, my condition seemed so grave that they gave up on me.

The Fairchild's battered fuselage had come to rest at about 12,000 feet on a snow-packed glacier flowing down the eastern slope of a massive, ice-crusted mountain. Thirteen passengers died. That left 32 of us still alive, some badly wounded. Teammate Arturo had two broken legs; Enrique's stomach was impaled by a six-inch steel tube. Others had head injuries. Uninjured survivors became workers, helping to free trapped passengers.

On my third day lying in a black and perfect silence, a light appeared, a thin gray smear, and I rose out of the darkness like a diver slowly swimming to the surface. Gustavo, one of my teammates, was crouching beside me, pressing snow to my lips. "Here, Nando, are you thirsty?" he said.

The cold snow burned my throat as I swallowed, but my body was so parched I gobbled it in lumps and begged for more. I heard soft moans and cries of pain around me. Full of questions as my head cleared, I motioned Gustavo closer. "Where is my mother?" I asked. "Where is Susy?"

His face betrayed no emotion. "Get some rest. You're very weak.

I lay shivering on the plane's floor, listening for my sister's voice and glancing about for my mother, even as my head throbbed. When I reached up to touch the crown of my head, I felt rough ridges of broken bone beneath congealed blood and a spongy sense of give. My stomach heaved: It was shattered pieces of my skull against the surface of my brain.

When Gustavo came by again with more snow, I grabbed his sleeve. "Where are they, Gustavo? Please.

He looked into my eyes and must have seen I was ready. "Nando, you must be strong. Your mother is dead." Then he added gently, pointing to the rear of the airplane, "Your sister is over there. She's hurt very badly.

Panic and grief exploded in my heart, but a lucid, detached voice said, Do not cry. Tears waste salt. You'll need salt to survive.

I was astounded. Not cry for my mother, for the greatest loss of my life? I'm stranded, I'm freezing, my sister may be dying, and my skull is in pieces. I should not cry? I heard the voice again: Do not cry.

"There is more," Gustavo said. "Panchito is dead. Guido too

Sobs gathered in my throat, but before I could surrender, the voice spoke once more: They are gone. Look forward. Think clearly. You will survive.

I now had an urgent desire to reach my sister. I rolled onto my stomach and started dragging myself on my elbows. When my strength gave out and my head slumped to the floor, someone lifted me.

And there, lying on her back, was Susy. Traces of blood were on her brow; her face had been washed. My friends helped me lie down beside her, and as I wrapped my arms around her, I whispered, "I'm here, Susy. It's Nando.

She turned and looked at me with her caramel-colored eyes, but her gaze was so unfocused I couldn't be sure she knew it was me. I wrapped myself around her to protect her from the cold and lay with her for hours. In the chaos of that broken plane, stranded in the Andes, there was nothing else I could do. I thought of my father's old advice to me: "Be strong, Nando. Be smart. Make your own luck. Take care of the people you love.

I told Susy, "Don't worry. They will find us. They will bring us home.

In those early days, all of us believed that rescue was our only chance of survival. We had to believe it. As the afternoon wore on, the frigid air took on an even sharper edge. The others found sleeping places in the fuselage and braced for misery. Soon the darkness was absolute, and the cold closed in on us like the jaws of a vise. I suffered through the night, breath by frozen breath. When I felt I couldn't stand it any longer, I drew Susy closer. The thought that I was comforting her kept me sane.

Five days later, on our eighth day in the mountain, I was lying with my arm around my sister when I saw the worried look fade from her face. Her breathing grew shallow; then it stopped. "Oh God, Susy. Please, no!" I cried.

My chest heaved with sobs. But I did not cry.

I made a silent vow to my father, who I knew was waiting for me. I will struggle. I will come home. I promise you, I will not die here!

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