Lost & Found: 5 Heroic Stories of Survival in Latin America

The Chilean miners’ inspiring story of heroic survival and rescue is undoubtedly one for the ages. But Latin America has long captured worldwide attention for dramatic events—whether massive natural or manmade disasters and daring rescues—before. Here are some of the most enduring stories.

1. Rescues: Andes Plane Crash

Lost in the Andes

One of the most famous and harrowing tales of survival started when Uruguayan rugby players and friends and family flying from Montevideo to Santiago, Chile for a friendly match crashed into the snowy Andes in 1972. Of the 45, only 16 were left after some survivors died from cold and others in an avalanche. After hearing radio reports that rescuers had given up hope of finding them, starving survivors began to eat their dead companions, who had been preserved in the snow. They were finally rescued when two of the players walked for 12 days and were found by a Chilean cowboy, who alerted authorities. The survivors had been lost for two-and-a-half months.

2. Rescues: Elian Gonzalez

Saved at Sea

The case of Elian Gonzalez was steeped in drama and heartbreak from beginning to end. The 5-year-old, his mom and several others left Cuba on a small boat with a faulty engine on November 21, 1999, dragging inner tubes behind. When the engine broke and the boat took on water, his mom put Elian on an inner tube. She drowned, but Elian and two other survivors drifted in the Atlantic—reportedly aided by a flock of dolphins who kept sharks at bay—until they were rescued by Miami fishermen Thanksgiving Day on November 25. He famously became the center of a custody battle between his Miami relatives and guardians and his father in Havana. Dad won, but not before immigration officials plucked him out of the relatives’ home in a raid.

3. Rescues: Mexico City Earthquake

Miracle Babies

Haiti’s devastating earthquake in January utterly eclipsed Mexico City’s famous 1985 groundshaker, but el D.F.’s disaster, which claimed as many as 45,000 lives and registered 8.1 on the Richter scale, remains famous for the dramatic rescue of 13 babies from the Benito Juarez Hospital. While their mothers all died, the babies, who were in the nursery at the time of the quake, survived seven days without food, water, or human warmth. Rescuers, which included miners, pulled the tots from under huge piles of rubble.

4. Rescues: Colombia Plane Crash

Falling to Earth

American Airlines 965, which went down after the back of the plane hit a mountain-top in Buga, Colombia, remains the country’s worst plane crash ever: 160 passengers died and only four passengers—plus one small brown dog—survived. Mercedes Ramirez Johnson later recounted her experience: “Everything was in pieces all around me. The middle of my right thigh was bent and the bottom half of my leg was behind me. I was lying in the aisle, but I could hear a man’s voice outside, so I dragged myself toward him. He pulled me out.” Some 18 hours later, rescuers arrived at the remote location and airlifted the survivors to a hospital.

5. Rescues: Mexican Fishermen

A Fish Tale?

In 2006, three Mexican fishermen rescued off the waters of a small Pacific island told authorities and a stunned world, that they had survived 289 at sea after what was supposed to be a three-day fishing trip went awry. They’d left from San Blas, ran out of gas and had engine trouble the first night, then were swept away in their 27-foot boat some 5,500 miles west. Two of the men died of starvation, they claimed, but the rest had survived by drinking rainwater and eating raw fish, seagulls and sea turtles, and reading the Bible until a tuna-boat crew spotted them and pulled them in. The Catholic Church declared the event miraculous, but discrepancies in their accounts made some suspicious. To this day, Los Perdidos, as they are called in Mexico, are sticking to their story, uh, stories.

6. Rescues: Related Links