In Depth

Bringing Story Home

ESPN Deportes Tracks Survivors of Devastating Plane Crash in ‘Sobrevivientes’

It was a tragedy that many viewers of ESPN’s Spanish-language network Deportes are too young to remember. In 1972, a plane carrying members of Uruguay’s rugby team to a match crashed in Argentina’s Andes Mountains. Only 16 of the 45 people on board survived the accident, and then spent 72 days battling their injuries, along with dehydration, hunger and frostbite, in the inhospitable high-altitude climate before they were rescued.

An international special feature team spent two weeks in South America interviewing several of the survivors, and now they are taking home an Edward R. Murrow Award in the news series category for a three-part “SportsCenter” feature series entitled “Sobrevivientes” (Still Alive).

“I’m always looking for good stories for our Latin American audiences. This story is so powerful that it goes beyond language barriers,” said Ursula Pfeiffer, the coordinating producer for the series and head of the feature unit.

Not all of the victims died at the moment of impact. Some were killed in an avalanche that happened eight days later. In order to avoid starvation, the survivors were forced to eat the flesh of the dead, an ordeal that was recounted in the1993 feature film “Alive.”

During six months of research and production, the ESPN Deportes team tracked down some of the survivors in Chile and Uruguay, including a doctor who, with another man, had hiked down from the mountains, crossed a river into Chile and flagged down a farmer for help. The men were able to lead rescue helicopters to the remaining 14 survivors in the mountains, from where they were airlifted to safety.

The three-part piece was told using hard-to-find news footage from the time and interviews with journalists who covered the dramatic rescue of the Andes Mountains survivors. Members of the group and their families hold reunions every year. Last year marked the 35th anniversary of the plane crash, which motivated the ESPN Deportes series.

“The story is about a rugby team and their ordeal and using whatever strength they had to survive. It goes beyond sports, language and time,” said Ms. Pfeiffer. “Sports are inherently human, and anything we do that is made part of our social life as a human society, the story holds all that—how strong and wonderful and awe-inspiring human nature is. It connects with us, no matter what the time period and space, and that to me is the wonderful thing about telling this fascinating story.”