MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay - "I come from a plane that fell in the mountains. I am Uruguayan.
"We have to get out of here quickly. We don't have any food. We are weak. We can't even walk.
"When are you going to come and fetch us?
It has been almost six years since Nando Parrado scrawled those words on a scrap of paper, fastened the paper to a rock and tossed it, with all the strength he could muster, across a small mountain stream high in the Chilean Andes.
The peasant on the other side of the cascading water could hardly believe what he saw that day: a bearded, filthy, emaciated man of 22, a boy, really, who wanted nothing more than to save himself, his friend, Roberto Canessa, who lay, unable to walk, in a meadow nearby, and 14 others who had survived both a plane crash and 10 weeks of incredible physical and psychological hardship on the side of a snow-covered mountain 11,500 feet above sea level.
They had survived by living in the fuselage of the downed plane, by using their wits and their imagination, by praying to God to deliver them from their own, special hell, where the cold and an avalanche killed almost as many as the crash itself - and by eating the flesh of those who had died.
Neither Parrado nor any of the other 15 survivors ever thought that anyone would be interested in their story, except perhaps a journalist or two back in Montevideo who might, they thought, want to write it up because the plane had belonged to the Uruguayan Air Force and had been chartered by an amateur rugby team named the Old Christians. All of the passengers and crew were Uruguayan.
The press in Montevideo was, of course, interested. But so were newspapers, magazines, television stations and would-be authors from around the world. The story of the 16 survivors - and of the 29 others who died as a result of the crash - transcended national boundaries and cultural differences.
It would be fair to say that the 16 survivors were totally unprepared for the attention that was focused on them immediately after their rescue, just as they were unprepared for the misery they endured during their 72 days in the bitterly cold and bleak Andes.
But it would also be fair to say, six years later, that the survivors, most of them still in their 20s, have handled their fame and fortune, the glory and the criticism that have come their way, with the same grace and determination that helped them survive the Andes, where temperatures often fell to 30 degrees below zero and where each of the survivors lost someone - a mother, a wife, a cousin or a best friend - whose death could easily have destroyed his hope, his will to live.
Each of the survivors has suffered, some of them probably more after their rescue than during their 10 weeks of misery on the side of the mountain.
Nando Parrado, who, along with Roberto Canessa, walked for 10 days through some of the most treacherous terrain on earth to save the others, will always be without his mother and sister, who died when the plane crashed on Oct. 13, 1972.
Bobby Francois lost almost all sight in one eye. Eduardo Strauch says it took three years for the periodic fits of depression he suffered finally to go away. Although all of the survivors have flown in airplanes since the crash, many of them say they are still terrified.
Yet almost all of them seem, today, to have overcome the worst physical and psychological problems that inevitably accompanied their isolation on the mountain, their need to eat the flesh of their friends and, in some cases, their relatives, and their reentry into the world, where they became instant celebrities.
It was a remarkable saga of man against nature, of human endurance and courage against all odds. The survivors were "the heroes of the moment," as one of them, Roy Harley, recalled the other day. They were attractive, they had been brave. Their will to live and their successful escape from almost certain death would soon become known around the world.
"Alive," the official account of their tragedy - and their triumph - would become a best-seller. At least 15 other books, many of them "quickies" based solely on newspaper accounts, would be written. An unauthorized, full-length motion picutre would be made in Mexico. Paramount and United Artists are still considering a movie based on the official book, written by Piers Paul Read.
Their problems were far more acute at the beginning, during the first year after their story became known. That year, 1973, was the most difficult. Time has made things easier in every way.
Roy Harley, for example, who has refused to talk about his experience and feelings since almost right after he returned to Montevideo, agreed to be interviewed for this article. It was a step, he said, he felt he could now take because enough time has passed, because the bad memories have faded and only the good things, the sense of friendship and cooperation, remain.
It took awhile, but all of the survivors are now either working or studying. Most have married and javier Methol, the oldest of the survivors, whose wife survived the crash but died in an avalanche half-way through the 10-week ordeal, has remarried and just this month became the father of a baby boy.
The survivors know that many people, especially in their native Uruguay, where all but two still live, think of them as heroes and expect them to be saints. At first, when some of them felt the need to savor life, to drive fast cars, to go out every night with a different girl, to drink and dance their way through discotheques in fashionable Punta del Este, this artificial standard was a serious problem because none of them could quite live up to what some people expected.
But now they are at ease, at least with what the outside world thinks and expects.
"It is difficult when everyone is saying how good you are," Canessa said over coffee recently. "It is difficult, especially when you know that you are still the same fool you were before. People expect so much from us that I don't want to disappoint them. But if you live your life as other people tell you, then you aren't living your own life at all."
Although all of the survivors say that their 10 weeks in the Andes had a profound effect on the way they think and on their views about life - and death - few of them think they would be doing anything different now than they would have had the crash not occurred.
During the first years after the accident, several of the survivors chose not to resume their studies or work. Some traveled in Europe and the United States. Some played a lot of sports in Uruguay or kept pretty much to themselves.
Some, like Nando Parrado, whose home was destroyed because his mother and sister were dead, acquired reputations as playboys - although Parrado's friends say his traveling, his race car driving and his many women were more symptoms of his need to find a new life for himself than a desire for a permanently superficial, glamorous existence.
Whatever the case, six years after the 16 survivors were rescued from the side of their mountain, all of them seem to have settled down to the comfortable, normal lives they probably would have led in any event as members of Uruguay's upper class.
Parrado, now 28, is managing two of his family's four hardware shops in Montevideo, stores which specialize in nuts, bolts and screws either manufactured in Uruguay or imported from Europe or the United States. Parrado still likes to race cars (he won the European Group II stock car championship last year as a member of the Alfa-Romeo factory team) but he says he will now concentrate on his business, the house he is building and his plans to marry next year.
He has seen the world and has known his share of both celebrities and women. "For me, Uruguay is the best place in the world to live," he said the other day. "And I am very much in love."
Roberto Canessa, now 25, is in his last year of medical school, is married and the father of a 15-month-old son named Hilary, which also happens to be the name of the mountain where the plane crashed. Canessa resumed his studies almost immediately after he returned because "I knew that if I wanted to be the same way I was - and the way I wanted to be - then I had to start again."
Gustavo Zerbino, now 25, was also in his first year of medical school when the crash occurred. He chose not to go back "because I had seen enough suffering." Zerbino now works as an executive of one of his family's several businesses and still plays rugby with the Old Christians. He is president of the club.
The other survivors, too, are working or studying. Carlitos Paez manages his mother's 1,200-acre estancia 22 km. from Montevideo, where he worries about 650 head of cattle, 420 sheep, 4- horses, his young wife, Maria Helena, and his young daughter, Maria Helena delos Andes.
Paez recently took his first long plane trip, to New York to visit his father, Carlos Paez Vilaro, Uruguay's most famous living artist, who was himself something of a hero during the 18 days the boys were lost in the Andes. It was Carlos, the father, who kept searching for Carlitos, the son, long after authorities in both Uruguay and Chile decided that no one could possibly have survived a plane crash in the Andes and months of sub-zero-degree temperatures without food, shelter or even proper clothing.
Edurdo Strauch, now 97, is working as an architect and plans to marry next year. Fito Strauch, alsoo 31, is studying agronomy in Madrid. Daniel Fernandez, 32, a professor of agriculture, is married and living in Montevideo.
Pancho Delgado, 31, is a notary public in Montevideo, is married and the father of two children. Roy Harley, 28, is married, the father of a young daughter, and is finishing his studies to be a civil engineer.
Bobby Francois, 25, is married and managing his family's cattle ranch. Alvaro Mangino, also 25, also married, also works on his family's estancia in the country. Coche Inciarte, 30, is married, has a child, and works on his family's dairy farm.
Antonio Vizintin, 25, is single and works for a real estate firm in Montevideo. Mancho Sabella, 27, is single and works for his family's fruit exporting company. Pedro Algorte, 28, is married, has two children and works in a bank in Buenos Aires.
Finally, Javier Methol, the oldest of the survivors, has remarried and continues to work in his family's cigarette factory. It was Methol whom the boys made fun of in the mountains and he is the one who now gives the reunions that the other survivors are so fond of.
There is a special bond that links the 16 men who survived. All of them are friends, some of them best of friends. They know exactly what the others are doing and see each other often.
Three of them, Zerbino, Canessa and Vixintin, still play rugby for the Old Christians and the team happened to be in Chile for a match this Oct. 13, the anniversary of the crash that prevented them from playing in Santiago six years ago.
Zerbino and Canessa (Vizintin could not make the trip), along with other Old Christian players, attended a private mass to mark the tragedy that left 26 dead and changed the lives of the 16 who survived.
Each of the survivors marks the anniversary in his own way. Parrado says he forgot this year until his older sister reminded him. For Canessa, however, and for others, Oct. 13 is a day to evaluate the past year and think about the future, to consider whether they are living according to the promises they made there, when none of the survivors knew if he would live or die.
Almost from the moment the 16 survivors were rescued, on Dec. 21 and 22, 1972, their reactions to their experience split them into two groups: those who wanted to talk about what had happened and rather liked the attention that was focused on them and those who chose not to speak in public and who resented not being able to live quiet, ordinary lives.
Nando Parrado, whose physical strength had allowed the others to be rescued, came back to Montevideo having, in a sense, lost the most: his mother and sister had died in the crash, and his father was deeply distraught.
Parrado could not reconstruct his old life as the others were able to do nor could he look to his immediate family for reassurance during the first weeks after the rescue, when all of the survivors were at least a little troubled by the reaction to the news that they had eaten human flesh to stay alive.
Parrado and Roberto Canessa, who had also made the incredible journey from the wreck of the airplane to the pasture where Parrado threw the stone that ended the 10-week ordeal, were, however, the heroes among the heroes. They became the leaders of the group [WORD ILLEGIBLE] talked about their experience, arguing in favor of collaborating with an advisor to write a book about survival, accepting invitations from Europe and the United States to speak about their time in the Andes and rather enjoyed their status as celebrities.
Carlitos Paez also fell into this category as did several of the others.
Bobby Francois, Alvaro Mangino, Daniel Fernandez, Pedro Algorta and Javier Methol felt, and continue to feel it was something private, something that they would rather the rest of the world forget, according to Canessa. They want to concentrate on their lives today. They don't like people looking at them.
Those who are willing to discuss their experience, and what has happened to them since, survivors such as Parrado, Canessa, Paez, Zerbino, Eduardo Strauch and now Harley, are nonetheless quite protective of the others and only talk about certain subjects with the greatest reluctance. In some ways, Carlitos Paez is the least reserved: his best friends all say he is crazy, although this is not what they mean. Carlitos has a devil-many-care attitude about his life, is open and charming, and volunteers information which the others avoid even when asked directly.
The subject that stirs the most emotion still is the rumor that began circulating in Montevideo immediately after the 16 were rescued. The rumor was that the survivors had killed some of the others for food when they ran short of bodies of passengers who had died in the crash or its aftermath.
"This bothered us, really, because it wasn't true and it put some doubts in the minds of the families of the other boys that died," paez said. "Another thing I didn't like was that some magazines said we were cannibals because that is someone who kills another person because he likes to eat human flesh. We didn't do that."
All of those interviewed said they felt no guilt or shame for having eaten those who died - because there would have been no other way to survive. "You can't feel guilty for doing something you didn't choose to do," Canessa said.
Paez said that, among themselves, they now are even able to joke about the food they ate in the Andes and once, when all the survivors meet for dinner in a restaurant, they kiddingly threatened to eat a waiter who was slow in bringing them their food. "Yes, he seemed a bit scared for a moment. He knew who we were."
But all of the survivors say that, in general, their families, their friends and the families of those who died - after some initial shock - have been extremely understanding about this aspect of their survival and no one has said anything to them that could be construed as nasty or accusatory.
The money they have received from the book, from public appearances, from interviews that some of them charged for, is on the other hand, still a subject of criticism in Uruguay. Many people think that the survivors profited from their tragedy in an unbecoming way.
"It was very hard-earned money, I can tell you," Nando Parrado says now. "I would like to know what others would have done if they had been in our place. Someone was going to make money, authors, movie producers, publishers and journalists, so why shouldn't we have made some?"
Parrado refused to say how much the survivors each made but did say that, with the money they earned, they built two schools, built houses for needy people and gave to other charities. "We are not millionaires," he said.
Paez said each of the survivors made about $100,000 from the book, "Alive," and each of them gave away between $25,000 and $30,000.
Another subject that split the survivors, at least at the time, was whether they should cooperate with the writing of a book about their experience. Again, some felt it was a private affair and that there was no need to relate it to the world.
But others, like Parrado and Canessa, argued successfully that a book would end up being written anyway and that, if properly described, the story of their suffering and their escape could inspire others whose lives seemed hopeless or who were about to give up in despair. "We thought it would be egotistical to keep it to ourselves," said Gustavo Zerbino.
Nando Parrado says he still receives upwards of 50 letters a month from around the world, many of them wanting to know what has happened to the survivors and others from people who say they were about to commit suicide until they read "Alive."
"Usually, they say that after they read the book they realized that nothing could be worse than what we went through," Parrado said the other day. "They say the book gives them hope. We have seen that lots of people were suffering in the world," was the way Canessa put it. "And that we have helped a little bit."
Parrado and Roberto Canessa first made contact with the Chilean peasant on Dec. 20, 1972, 70 days after the plane crash. By Dec. 22, the last of the survivors had been evacuated by helicopter from the side of one of the cruelest, coldest mountains in the world. The survival of the 16 quickly became known as the Christmas miracle.
At the time of the rescue, most of the survivors said they thought they had been delivered by God. Carlitos Paez told a priest then that "we hope to preach faith to the world. If we were able to survive, it was because we all acted with team spirit, with great faith in God - and we prayed."
Some of the survivors, such as Canessa, still believe that "I think He let us get out." But others, such as Carlitos, now think it was luck more than anything else. "The people were the miracle, that they were able to adapt. We were all boys who had never been accustomed to living in this way - to cold or to bad houses.
"Now I believe in God and all this but not like in that moment."
What is certainly true is that all of the survivors, whether they believe that God was or was not responsible for their rescue, have come to believe far more in themselves. All of them say they are able to make decisions without confusing fantasy or their desires with reality and all of them feel that they are equipped to overcome problems or setbacks that might discourage other people.
"Horrible things don't discourage us so much," Canessa said, reflecting the general view. "We are accustomed to suffering," Gustavo Zerbino said.
Most of the survivors say that their lives have been changed, probably forever, by their experience in the Andes. They say they think differently and that their values are different from what they were before.
"I always say I have learned to value life," Roy Harley said the other day. "I am scared or dying because I am very fond of living. I like to see the sun rising, to go to the country on a good day . . . I don't think I valued life before."
Some of the survivors, such as Nando parrado, said they think about their ordeal only infrequently, while others, such as Eduardo Strauch, say they think about it every day. "I am always thinking about it, yes. I will be thinking my whole life. It was a very deep experience," he said.
Parrado has been back to the site of the plane crash three or four times with his father because his mother and sister are buried there, as are all of the others who did not survive.
Enough time has passed now that all of the survivors interviewed said they hope to return to the place where they spent 10 weeks of their lives. Most said they hope to go in February when it is summer in South America.
"Well, you know, we lived there for a lot of time. It was a kind of civilization there," said Carlitos Paez. "In some ways, it was very beautiful. Some nights, our thoughts were very nice. It was pure there. I would like to see the place again."
Six years ago, when the 16 surviviors, many of them barely out of high school, were brought down from the mountain, their doctors, their priests and their families feared that they would be physically and psychologically scarred for the rest of their lives.
They had crashed into the side of a mountain, they had seen friends and loved ones die, they had eaten human flesh to stay alive and spent 10 horrifying, lonely weeks in the Andes - not knowing whether they would be rescued or would, simply, eventually starve to death after all that they had suffered.
None of them wants to forget that experience but none of them has let it debilitate him. Just as they conquered the Andes, they have conquered what came after.
"Perhaps the interesting thing is that after such an experience, everyone is living very normally," Canessa said. "It's a happy feeling to see them all so well."