Parrado, one of sixteen survivors of the famous plane crash in the Andes, talks
to Pepi Sappal about the challenges, skills and teamwork that got them through
the gruelling 72-day ordeal
the following scenario: you’re stuck on top of a freezing peak in the Andes for
almost two-and-a-half months in sub-zero temperatures, wearing little more than
clothes suitable for hot climes, with no food and in agony because you’ve
sustained some serious physical injuries. That’s what Nando Parrado and his
rugby team mates and relatives had to endure when the private plane they had
chartered from Uruguay to Chile crashed in the Andes, some 30 years ago.
only in recent years that Parrado has been able to talk about the extraordinary
saga, which is well documented in both the book and film Alive.
the time the plane crashed on October 13, 1972 until their rescue on December
22, the survivors had to overcome extreme physical conditions that tested their
mental limits. "One minute we were a bunch of happy-go-lucky students
between the ages of 17 and 20, looking forward to the rugby match against the
Old Boys in Chile, and the next we found ourselves on a freezing glacier
fighting for our lives," recalls Parrado.
SHRM’s conference earlier this year in San Francisco, Parrado pointed out that,
"Had it been a commercial flight, we probably wouldn’t have survived. The
different ages, backgrounds and cultures would have worked against us. By the
time everyone started to work as a team, it would have been too late."
fact that they were well acquainted with each other on the rugby pitch
certainly helped. "As many of us had known each since childhood, we were
working as a team within five minutes of the crash," he says.
an extraordinary tale of courage, determination and leadership that got the
survivors through the 72-day ordeal. Although 33 of the 45 survived the initial
crash, only 16 made it through to the end. He attributes their survival to
seamless teamwork. "Everyone played to their strengths. Initially it was
natural for the team captain, Marcelo, to take on the role of leader. He
assessed that we would not survive the night unless we made a decent shelter
because of the wind-chill factor, especially as we weren’t equipped for winter
weather as we didn’t have jackets, sweaters or boots to protect us from the
different types of leaders evolved throughout the episode. "Two amateur
doctors, for example, took the lead attending to the injured parties. Many
victims of the crash were suffering from serious physical injuries such as
broken bones, but others escaped with hardly a scratch," Parrado says.
was very little food – a bar of chocolate and a couple of bottles of wine – so
it was rationed. But a square of chocolate and capful of wine, which was fast
running out, was not enough to survive."
there was no other sign of life around, the doctors realised that their only
chance of staying alive was by consuming the frozen flesh of the crash victims,
many of whom were friends and family.
was an issue that raised much controversy, not only within the group of
survivors, but also in the outside world after they were rescued.
"Although it disgusted us all, we had no choice. But that was nothing
compared to the freezing temperatures of minus 25 degrees we had to
endure," claims Parrado.
failing to get the radio to work to establish communication with the outside
world, and no sign of rescue after weeks of waiting, Parrado became obsessed
with finding a way out. Despite losing both his mother and sister in the crash,
he was one of the fittest and strongest of the survivors, capable of leading an
expedition to find help. "We realised we had to get out by ourselves
before we got too weak. We had to balance time with physical strength. Two
things, however, counted against us, the freezing weather and lack of
equipment," he says.
had prepared for the expedition by making things like rucksacks, sleeping bags
and tools with hardly any resources at our disposal," says Parrado.
they discovered hidden talents and reserves of strengths they never knew they
had. "I was amazed at the common sense, logic and genius displayed by the
team members, despite the little experience of life we had. In fact, most of us
had never seen snow before, let alone faced death," he adds.
we came up with great innovations from inventing a water-making system using
the heat from the sun to melt enough water from the ice, to making blankets from
the plane’s seat covers. One of the guys even made sunglasses with visors and
aluminium from the cockpit. He sewed them together with copper wire from the
electric system to the elastic from plane seat covers, which we used for
head-bands. In fact, those sunglasses were life-savers as the reflection of the
sun on the glaciers almost blinded us."
two months of preparation, Parrado led an expedition with team-mate Roberto
Canessa to the West, in the hope of reaching Chile. "After three days of
climbing to the top of the summit and seeing what lay ahead, we knew that our
future looked bleak – we had very little chance of survival, let alone finding
we had a choice – either we could give up and die there, or continue to walk
and die of exhaustion. The latter was the preferred option, as it was an easier
way to die," recalls Parrado. "I made a life-or-death decision in
less than 20 seconds. Today, I make decisions much faster."
expedition wasn’t an easy task to complete. "It wasn’t just about hitting
a deadline, we knew that the failure to complete this expedition meant the
difference between us all living or dying," says Parrado. Luckily, after
an exhausting 10-day trek through the mountains, a shepherd came to their
rescue and Parrado and Canessa were able to get the help needed to rescue the
maintains it was team initiative that got them through. "The biggest
lesson we probably learned was the value of working together; taking on tasks
that we were best suited to and giving more than 100 per cent
performance," he says.
teamwork we had at the crash was the best I’ve ever seen in action. The doctors
did a great job keeping the injured alive, the others helped to ration food and
water to make sure it lasted and did what they could to prepare the essentials
required for the expedition. So every member contributed to our survival and
eventual rescue in their own way.
a rugby game, players are prepared to make sacrifices so another player can
score. I guess we survived from that kind of team spirit. We would give up our
sweatshirt or ration of chocolate if someone else needed it more," says
Parrado, who played in the second row for his team, the Old Christians Club.
has attempted to encourage that type of teamwork in all his Uruguayan-based
businesses, including his family owned hardware business Selar Parrado SA,
television production companies and an advertising agency. "It hasn’t been
easy," he admits. "As we live in a world that’s contaminated with
selfishness, people rarely make sacrifices unless they receive credit,
recognition or reward."
said, the skills he acquired in the crash have proved extremely useful in
managing the staff employed across his six businesses. "Getting the best
out of the survivors in what you could describe as the worst-case conditions on
our worst possible days required great sensitivity. And that was difficult. But
I learnt how to read human behaviour and, as a result, I’m a better manager."
episode certainly proved that he was a natural leader with great drive and
determination – vital skills for a CEO. His enthusiasm for life and endless
energy is displayed in his existing workload. On top of his CEO roles, he takes
charge of all HR responsibility. He writes his own HR policies from how his
employees should behave to how to deal with customers. He’s also responsible
for the training and recruitment of staff from management level upwards.
every other employer, Parrado too, believes that good employees are hard to
find. "In my experience, the best academics don’t always make the best
employees as they often fail to perform on practical jobs. I never just rely on
look for the type of common sense, innovative and genius qualities, like those
displayed by the survivors in the Andes, which I test for during interview. Of
course, I also look for other traits like integrity, sacrifice – will they work
extra hours if needed? – and most importantly solidarity. Are they team
is another essential attribute. "During that experience in the Andes, I
realised the one thing most people are scared of is confronting others.
Recently, I hired a couple of young guys because they weren’t afraid to
challenge me. I admired that quality, so I took them on."
experience has certainly helped Parrado put things into perspective.
"Although I have a challenging and enjoyable work life, I also want to
have that barbecue with friends and spend time having fun on the beach with my
wife Veronique and two daughters."
tries to encourage that work-life balance with-in his businesses, but admits
that the young and ambitious just don’t understand the need for that kind of balance
early on in life. "You can be successful without becoming a
workaholic," stresses Parrado. "I’m living proof of that."