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IT'S a terrifying thought. Being on a plane which crashes in some far-flung spot leaving you with no chance of rescue.

The nightmare scenario is being played out in the 25-part US TV series Lost which pulled in more than six million viewers when it started its run on Channel 4 last week.

Many afraid of flying will have taken comfort in the fact it couldn't happen in real life.

But it has.

There are chilling similarities with the true story of a plane with 45 passengers and crew on board crashing 10,000ft up in the Andes mountains of South America in October, 1972. True, the real-life survivors' main enemy was cold, whereas the fictional passengers came down in on a tropical island - but their isolation, terror and helplessness was exactly the same.

Both sets of survivors used the shells of their stricken aircraft for shelter. Both eventually realise any would-be rescue attempts have been called off. And in both, a doctor emerges as the survivors' leader.

In Lost, it is a character called Jack Shepherd played by 39-year-old Matthew Fox. In real-life, Dr Roberto Canessa, then 19 and a second-year medical student, shouldered the burden of taking care of his 27 fellow survivors and attempting to get them rescued.

But no fictional story could come even close to re-living the full horror of a live-or-die decision made by the real-life "Lost" victims and retold in the 1993 film Alive.

After almost a week living in temperatures of -30C, with no food except a single square of chocolate, a pot of jam and a tube of toothpaste, Dr Canessa and his companions realised the only way they could survive was by eating the bodies of their friends who had died when their Fairfield F-227 jet had crashed. The group - mostly aged between 18 and 21 and members of a Uruguayan rugby team - lived on human flesh for 72 days.

It fell to Dr Canessa to supervise the dissection of the bodies, which was done with pieces of broken glass. Now 51 and a leading cardiologist, he says: "We knew it was crazy and repugnant but there was no alternative. If we had not done it, we would not be here today."

In fact, the remaining survivors all made a pact that they were willing for their own bodies to be eaten if they died. "I would have been happy to feed my body to my friends," Dr Canessa says. "We were driven by the will to live. It was a great act of friendship."

Ten days after the crash they heard on a portable radio that the search had been called off. Then an avalanche smashed into the plane. Those who escaped desperately fought to rescue the trapped - but eight people died under the snow.

It was their lowest ebb. With people continuing to die around them, they had to make up their minds whether to sit and wait for death or to make one last desperate attempt to get help. Dr Canessa and fellow survivor Nando Parrado set out across the treacherous jagged peaks wearing only jeans and jumpers, with plastic bags and football boots on their feet. For food they carried small parcels of human flesh. The odds against them making it were incredible, yet somehow they did. On the brink of exhaustion they stumbled down from a mountain plateau and found a startled Chilean peasant tending his cattle. "We have come from a plane that fell in the mountains," they told him. Their survival, and the rescue of their 14 remaining companions, remains one of the great miracles of aviation history.

For Dr Canessa, a father of three, who lives with his wife Laura in the Uruguayan capital Montevideo, it has put the rest of life in perspective. "Up there in the mountains with nothing, you learn about the important things in life like friendship and generosity and bravery and determination."

Outwardly, Dr Canessa and his fellow survivors seem remarkably untouched by the horrors they went through. They found comfort by being with each other and still do, meeting every year on the anniversary of their rescue.

"We discovered the worthlessness of materialism when we were stranded on that mountainside," one survivor, Coche Inciarte, says. "We used to light our cigarettes with dollar bills. It was the only paper we had. To me, money is still just paper." Not long ago, Inciarte won pounds 1.7million in the Uruguayan national lottery. He gave most of it away.

For years afterwards, some survivors found it difficult to sleep; in the mountains, if they slept for more than 20 minutes at a time they risked dying from frostbite. But Dr Canessa has never experienced insomnia or nightmares. "The only dreams I have had since," he says, "have been dreaming that my friends were still alive."

He pauses, remembering their faces and their suffering. "I did not want those dreams to end."

- LOST IN LUST - Pages 24&25


Safe.. desperate survivors cheer (right) as a rescue plane arrives and tends them one by one (above); We made it...Roberto (right) and Nando after reaching civilisation and raising alarm; Thirty years on.. Roberto and other survivors went back to crash site in 2002
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Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Aug 14, 2005
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