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30th Anniversary
Interview with Carlos Paez: October 2002
Interview carried out by Old Boys Magazine Set. /Oct. 2002

Before making the interviews we wanted to consult some interviewee’s relatives about the way in which we were going to approach the matter, and above all, we wanted to know if there was anything they wouldn’t like to talk about.
Nacho talked with Madelón Rodriguez, mother of Carlitos Paez and friend of him. Then we were both at the same plane to Buenos Aires.
It was very useful talk with her, as usual. She gave me confidence and, like in other occasions, we talked a lot about the Andes matter. She played an important part in this story and her point of view seemed essential to me.
It doesn’t call my attention that when the plane stops and prepares to take off, Madelón cross herself.
Carlos Paez welcomed us with his natural kindness.
The confidence the years in which we worked together gave us makes everything develop with calm and naturalness.
I think he hasn’t lost his innocence, his freshness and his admiration for himself and his friends. But as he says “I’m a public figure and I pay the consequences”. Sometimes he seems to be somebody whose words don’t affect him emotionally, but when I ask for the photo which is above the table the expression of his face makes a complete change.
It is a black and white copy with white frames. Typical photo that appeared on the press; there it is Carlitos drinking a toast, with who knows what, in a thermos’ lid.
Few minutes had passed of the rescue and, incredibly, he doesn’t show signs of malnutrition like the rest of his mates.
By his side one of the Strauch leans over something that is probably food.
It’s not known to whom belongs that skinny hand that shows by one side however, it attracts as much the attention as the guard’s face behind Carlitos, hearing to something he will never forget:
- Take it as it is (with frame and glass) and you give it back to me in the same conditions.
I recognize in that expression the person I think Carlitos was at the age of 18. A revel and believer boy who was becoming an icon of hope, without realizing it, hope that many times men seem to have lost.
- Of course- he answered -As I take it I give it back.
I keep the photo carefully in my bag and I sit.
It’s time to turn on the recorder.

Life before the accident

- What memories do you have of the time when you were at the Stella Maris School?
- I spent a great time there. I used to study little and have a lot of fun. I lived I Carrasco, a privilege for any child. We went school by bike and in the way we used to chase frogs, you know…
I have a great memory of my childhood

- What was your place at the rugby team?
- I was pillar and I wasn’t good. I did only one try in my life and it was shared with others, so I could never realize if I was the one who did it or were the others. I was pillar at the First XV of the School.

- Did you choose that sport or it was the only sport played at the school?
- No, you could play football at school as well, but as I was horrible in that sport I decided to play rugby. The truth is that I wasn’t good at sports (he laughs).

- Could you define me the word rugby?
- Basically, the word rugby means team.

- Did your physical formation help your survival at the Andes?
- I think it didn’t, truly. I think that the reason of our survival was more cultural than physical. There were a lot of things which helped. The firs one was the innocence, we were all young and unconscious.
Then it was the fact that we all knew each other, which was very important, and we belonged to the same social level and cultural background. Those were things that helped a lot, and the religious part was very important too. I don’t think that the rugby united us; actually not all of us were rugby players. I was not going to play, for example. We weren’t event from the same School; in fact 7 of the 16 survivors weren’t from the school.

- What about your religious formation, did it help?
- My religious formation helped, obviously. When we had no hope, God was our only hope, there wasn’t anything else.

- The God you met there was the same you believed in or saw at the mass?
- No. It was a different God. At school we had the image of an old bearded God who was walking through the clouds and all the other things…
There we met a God who was closer to the indifference of material things, to the humility, to the fact of not having anything. The more stripped we are of material things, the better we get the figure of God.

- Tell me about your expectations, your plans and dreams.
- My plan was working in the country. As a good bad student, together with the fact that my family had some pieces of land at the country, I decided to work in there. I studied at the Sarandí Grande’s Agrarian College and graduated as a Farming Technician, so I worked at the country. Then I realized that it wasn’t for me. I’m a sociable guy and in the country you’re a bit limited to be in contact with people. I’m very anxious as well, and the work at the field is slow. The processes are very slow.

The tragedy

- What things do you remember from that horrible October afternoon in the Fairchild?
- We had left Montevideo the 12th October in the morning, our destiny was Santiago de Chile but we had to stop in Mendoza due to the weather conditions. We spent the night at Mendoza and we ate at a restaurant of a Uruguayan we met that day. We divided ourselves in groups; we were having a great time. It was our first “long” trip.
In the next day the possibility of returning to Montevideo was considered because the weather wasn’t improving, but finally the pilots decided to fly, in part because we put press on them.
We took off to Santiago at two in the afternoon. Little after that the first clouds appeared and the turbulence started. We realized that the plane was going down and we were told that the decent to Santiago had started. In that moment we fell into the first big turbulence and then two more came, big long falls that seemed endless. The engines made a very loud sound, which I think was the raising attempt, one of the wings crashed against the mountain and all the impact came after that. I thought that everything was part of the normal navigation; I didn’t realize we had crashed. The only things I manage to do were putting my head over my hands and pray. Between Our Father which is the longest prayer and Gloria which is the shortest I chose the Ave Maria which is medium. It was almost certain that I couldn’t have finished with Our Father, and the Gloria was too short and I didn’t want to be in bad terms with God. It’s incredible but I thought about all those things. So I started with the Ave Maria and when I finished with it the plane stopped. That episode is clearly documented in the film…

- Didn’t you really realize that you had crashed and were sliding down the mountain?
- No I didn’t until it stopped. It’s difficult to realize when you are having an accident in a plane due to the speed in which things happen, and it’s even harder if you had an accident and you are alive.

- And, when did the plane stop?
- The seats made a sudden movement forward and we ended up all cramped. It took me half an hour to get out. It was in that moment I started to understand what had happened there. Canessa was close to me and I asked him if somebody was dead “It’s a disaster” he answered. I left the plane remains and I saw Françoise sat, very quiet, and smoking. It was in that moment when the chaos started.

- How was the fist night?
- Horrible. There were lots of people dying, and they actually died that night. If you ask me a definition of hell I would answer “that night”.

- Do you think that having only 19 years-old helped you in the sense that you weren’t completely aware of the seriousness of what was happening?
- Absolutely. It was all crazy. What Canessa and Parrado did, for instance, walk across the mountain for ten days without the appropriate equipment and after two months of undernourishment, is completely unthinkable to anyone. Not long ago we were at the mountains and I had a bad time in there. We are older, is true, but I think that the unconsciousness of the 18th played an essential part in our lives. The fact of not having any qualms about what we did was what took us out of there…

- Had you ever thought about death before the accident?
- You always think about death. It seems to you like something far away, because human beings are very arrogant and in some way they think that nothing ever is going to happen to them. I remember a definition I heard in a wake. One guy was asking another “What do you think about death?” and the other guy answered “death annoys me” I think that’s a good way of defining the topic. I’m afraid of death. I really don’t like it.

- How did you manage to change so quickly you view about the topic, about never live with the death?
- We lived more with life than with death actually. Although 29 dead people surrounded us, hope and faith in life made us live more with it than with death in spite of being in a cemetery.

- What themes did you talk about?
- We talked about food generally. We were so hungry that talked a lot about food. We had done a list with 130 restaurants from Montevideo. It was pure masochism.

- Did the money have any value in Los Andes?
- I had 70 dollars, which was all the money I had and I offer it to Françoise for a cigarette. I offer him 70 dollars for one cigarette and he didn’t sell it to me. I don’t know if that answers your question…

- Did you argue?
- We argue a lot. It’s said that the best way of making two friends argue is having both at the same place for a long time. But we were basically close. Obviously, the ones who worked were more integrated to the group while the others were a bit less, but we were a close group.

- Why some of you didn’t work?
- For several reasons, some of them were feeling bad, others for weakness. The only thing I know is that I worked my fingers to the bone.

- After the avalanche those who survived thought that they must live up to the end, how did the death of Arturo Nogueira and then Turcatti affect you?
- Actually, it affected us less than if had happened here, in the civilization; their death and the other’s because we were fighting for our lives. Even Nando’s situation, without getting involved in his feelings, I think that it’s not the same that your mother dies here than in the mountains where you have to fight for your life. You are in a complex situation where the feelings might play a dirty trick on you and might kill you. The deaths we unfortunately had to contemplate were warnings of what might happen to us. The deaths of my friends here in the civilization affected me much more than at the mountains.

- Like living with permanent risks…….
- All kind of things happened, in the book doesn’t appear, but there were a couple of tremors and in a rock-fall one passed very close to my head. The avalanche was different. We never imagine that it could happen however, it happened.
Were you more afraid of madness or death?
I didn’t realize I was going to die. We were at 4000 meters high and there wasn’t much oxygen, so I though slower, my state wasn’t normal. I wasn’t afraid of madness. I remember specific moments of fear, like after the avalanche; when we were literally buried under the snow, I was afraid of suffocating.

- Were you 3 days buried?
- Yes, from October 29th to November 1st. We were inside the plane on my birthday. But I went out on November 1st to play tribute to my father and my sister who celebrated their birthdays that day. There were others who spent more time inside in a very small place, without light, soaked to the skin and suffering temperatures of 25 degrees below zero. We were 19 people cramped one over the other.

- How did the expedition you have to face and the returning the following day affected you? (With Vizintín and Harley)
- It was really hard. The third member of the team who would go with Nando and Roberto had to be chosen. Roy Harley, Antonio Vizintín and I went on an expedition. The snow starts melting at midday due to the temperature, and that makes it difficult to walk. There was a moment in which I couldn’t walk anymore and I said “leave me here”. After that they dragged me the rest of the way. Then Roy got very tired also so it was decided that Vizintín would be the third member.
But I did lots of expeditions before that, looking for the batteries to connect the radio. Those batteries were found later by Canessa and Parrado near the plane’s tail.

- Did you get used to those expeditions?
- No, never it was too hard. The place was too complicated. We were at 4000 meters high with 25 degrees below zero and without equipment to support that.

- Describe us the surroundings, the place were you where.
- It was crazy. On one hand you realized that you were in a beautiful place but on the other it was awful to me. It’s an inhospitable place. Look, in March as I said to you we went to the place where the plane is and we did it with all the necessary equipment, tents, clothes, cellular phones, food. It was the same to me, I almost die. From one side is awful, from the other beautiful.

- How did the awareness of the group function?
- I thought some times “that’s enough; I don’t want this any more”. The good thing is that when you are in a group the group helps you. When one member of the group falls, the others try to raise his spirit up, they help him.

- Do you think that this group awareness was imposed by the ones who played rugby or it was generally imposed by all of you?
- It was undoubtedly of all of us. Only 5 out of the 16 survivors were rugby players. Naturally, when the time of doing the bloodiest things came, they were the ones who take charge of. They were better trained. But we all knew that the only possibility of getting out of there, if there was some, was keeping that group awareness....

- What was your spiritual support?
- I clung to the rosary. On the afternoon, we used to talk about food and restaurants as well as say the rosary; it was a good peaceful moment.

- Did that become a routine?
- Yes, naturally. Men are creatures of habit, and that wasn’t the exception. But sometimes the inclemency of the weather made you change it.

- What does the sentence “losers are left behind” suggest you?
- I don’t know if it is so strict. Sometimes you stay behind and you’re not a looser. I would rather say “those who don’t want to live are left behind”; “those who have not enough mental health are left behind”. Dr. Mendilá, one of greatest psychologists in Uruguay told me once: -Carlitos you have your health assured for life. And it’s true. You have to be healthy minded to deal with what we had to deal, to continue your life without traumas.

- Is true that you had encouragement words towards each other?
- I don’t remember having that habit. You have to keep in mind that the author plays an important part too if you’ve read the book.
What I do remember is that Roberto Canessa had the best title for what would end up being “Alive!” That title was “Maybe Tomorrow”, in connection with our hope of being rescued. It was undoubtedly the best title but I don’t know what kind of editorial problems happened and it couldn’t be.

- Were you really sure you were going to survive?
- We always thought about getting out of there. Look, to understand how optimistic we were, there is a photograph in which I am outside the plane without shirt. I was sunbathing to be in good conditions on my arrival in Punta Del Este..

Life after the accident

- What things do you remember about your return to Montevideo?
- The arrival at Montevideo was one of the most beautiful and saddest things that ever happened to me, because from one side I was very happy and from the other I was very sad.

- ¿Do you remember the mass at the Stella Maris?
- In that mass I cried all the things I hadn’t cried before at the mountains.

- And that press conference?
- On our arrival at the School we found 300 journalists and lots of friends and we couldn’t greet them because we were being kept away. The only thing I wanted was to greet my friends but we had to fulfill the press requirements. It was the moment in which we were going to talk worldwide, that’s the truth.

- How did the press treat you?
- They treated us well. With the years and after having worked enough with the press, I can tell you that what happened was treated with respect. There was some tabloid press, there always is, but it wasn’t much. What happened to us moved everybody, every society of the world, and it was taken with respect.

- How did the society receive you?
- With a lot of respect too. There was no reason to take it another way, but I know that it could be taken differently and, in fact there were some people who did think differently and it was that what produced some misunderstandings or some disrespectful situations; But you have to analyze the context in which those situations happened.

- How did you feel when after your arrival you started to know all the things your parents did to find you?
- I found it natural. It wasn’t a surprise for me to meet my parents again, because it felt like I was on a two months and a half trip.
They had the problem. I knew they were alive, they didn’t. I imagine that seeing me again must have been amazing for them.

- The Church doesn’t consider what happened as a communion but as an act of inspiration, how did you feel when you saw that some people mistake that communion with cannibalism?
- I agree with the Church. To me it wasn’t a communion either. We ate human flesh to survive. It’s as simple as that, and the Church took it that way. As a catholic it was helpful to know that there is body and soul, and the body is matter. When you die your soul leaves and what remains is the body, which is in fact matter.

- Were there some people who condemn you?
- When we had to promote the film we traveled around the world and the only ones who didn’t understand what happened were the Koreans. But even Pablo VI, which was that moment’s Pope sent us a blessing telegram. If this happened to me again, I would do the same things. Maybe I wouldn’t wait those ten days we waited.

- It took you ten days to take that decision?
- 10 days. And those ten days were decisive for the ones who were weakening more and more as the time passed, and then died. I don’t know if those deaths were due to not having taken the decision on time. What I do know is that today I would take it before. The book Alive! In Italy was called “Tabu”. Do you know why? Because there was not previous information about the topic; it was the end of a taboo.

- But, why did you take so long?
- For people who have just suffered a terrible crash, under those weather conditions and without any food, the weakening must have speeded up.
We broke that taboo and it wasn’t easy. We didn’t think we were weakening. We were trying to understand and overcome what we were just about to do. On the other hand we thought that we were going to be rescued, that they were looking for us and that delayed the decision. Then, when we knew that the search had been stopped, that we didn’t exist any more for the world, we had to take a determination and we didn’t have anything to eat. That’s the reality.

- It was “a miracle” to you having survived, or it was just “something provoked or made by men’s hand”?
- If there is a miracle, that is certainly “the man”, how is he been created with the ability to support and adapt to extreme situations. But this was not a miracle. Some people entitle it as a miracle and called it “the Andes miracle”, but I think that it’s more a natural men’s fight for life. We keep the holiest human right up to the end, which is fighting for our lives. More than a right, it is an obligation. I think that God influenced in this, but it would have been a miracle if the 45 of us would have appeared alive after 70 days. This is not our case.

- Did your attitude towards life change after the proof you had to pass?
- I wish my attitude had changed, but it hasn’t changed much. It is useful to me as a parameter to think and to complain less about things. But I complain like everybody else, what I should do is go back to the Andes and say “I hadn’t light in there, and here I am messing about for a power cut; while at the Andes I could live without light during 70 days”
People tend to think that it was very helpful for us, and they push to make us say something that I don’t know what is. I really don’t know if it has served me that much. I learnt what I would do in some situations, things that I would never suspect I could do.

- Was it difficult for you to go back to your normal life?
- It was hard because in these countries people is always keeping an eye on the others. The society is like the judge of our attitudes; whether we acted right or wrong. Actually we started to be famous, even if we didn’t want to, and we became more exposed. In my case it was even worst because I worked in things connected with the press. It was bloody hard, I assume that price, but we learnt how to live with the civilization’s cannibalism.

- When you work with international press, do you notice they know about the theme, do they show any interest on it?
- Always. I realize that they try to find the way to talk about that. It’s the same that would happen to me if I knew a survivor from the Titanic.

- Do you keep in touch with the other survivors?
- We met every 22nd December, and now that the 30th anniversary is coming we met every Tuesday at Canessa’s home.

- Do the Andes always come out in the conversation?
- Yes, always. For some years we left the women apart in the meetings because we felt it was our moment, and we relived some events from the mountains, generally the funny ones.

- Does this story still make you come out in goose-pimples?
- For me the most impressive moment, which is the one I see the most in the film, is when the helicopters appear because that was for me the end of the story. It was the moment in which we left a civilization to go back to the world. For me that was the end.

- Did you like the film?
- It was done with a lot of respect, but I think that something better could have been done, I don’t know if I’m a good judge in this story. Each of us has his own story. The writer of “Alive!”, some years ago, challenged any other writer who could write a script everybody agrees with, and I think he’s right. Each of us lives his on mountains.

- If you could, would you change something from the Andes?
- No, besides I can’t.

- Would you like to leave a message for the people who are interested in this?
- I wouldn’t like to leave any message of anything. I don’t have enough arrogance to do that. I’m not a prophet. The only thing I do is being always ready to tell this story, if somebody wants to make any conclusion, O.K go ahead. I try to make my own one.
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