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Massachusetts honeymooners who survived a plane crash, piranha-infested waters, and starvation lived to tell the tale to NPR

Holly and her husband Gerry "Fitz" FitzGerald at Robin Hoods Bay, end of the 192-mile hike across England.
Holly and her husband Gerry "Fitz" FitzGerald at Robin Hoods Bay, end of the 192-mile hike across England.Courtesy Holly Fitzgerald

After meeting in Boston in 1969, Holly and Gerald “Fitz” FitzGerald, endured the honeymoon from hell. After their plane crashed in a Peruvian jungle, they ended up in a penal colony, with what they were told were the most dangerous criminals in Peru. Having missed the last boat out, they built their own raft, called the “Pink Palace,” and set off down the Madre de Dios River. But soon a lightning storm ravaged the raft, setting them adrift in waters loaded with armored alligators and piranhas, among other threats. They faced pelting rain. They were shot at. They shared the last can of tuna, then watched each other waste away.

Holly FitzGerald, who lives in Dartmouth, turned their incredible survival tale into a page-turning memoir in 2017. "Ruthless River: Love and Survival by Raft on the Amazon’s Relentless Madre de Dios” has since been optioned for film by Oscar-nominated screenwriter/producer Matt Charman. And come Valentine’s weekend, their odyssey will air nationally on NPR’s “Snap Judgment” and stream as a podcast. It may even hit theaters.

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With Joel and Ethan Coen, Charman co-wrote the 2015 film “Bridge of Spies,” directed by Steven Spielberg. After reading “Ruthless River,” “Snap Judgment” producer Nikka Singh was also interested in the story. The episode “Pink Palace,” will air on some 400 NPR stations — including Boston’s WGBH — on Feb. 15 at 2 p.m. as the show’s Valentine’s weekend episode, Singh said. It will also be available as a “Snap Judgment” podcast.

FitzGerald has talked to the Globe about other travel adventures — including enduring a bread riot in India, hospitalization in Greece, and a rhino chase in Kenya.

We caught up with her recently to talk love and survival.

Q. So this is a timely Valentine’s story, as it was your honeymoon — do you do anything special now to celebrate Valentine’s? I know you’ve said you celebrate the day you were rescued.

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A. For the past few Valentine’s, we’ve been going to Boston or Providence, or sometimes just go out for dinner. But March 16 is our special day. We have fish, oranges, and rice. We call it Raft Day. That’s the day we were rescued, and that was the first meal we had.

Q. And who gave you that meal?

A. The woman at the barraca where we were saved — that’s like a ranch or plantation on the river. She gave us some gruel, too.

Q. So, backtracking, you two met in Boston.

A. In 1969. We were both going to school at Suffolk; Fitz had just come back from Vietnam. We were married in 1970. We did our delayed honeymoon in 1972. The plan was to go around the world for a year. We thought we’d live it up [laughs]. We had a whole itinerary. But we were all of five months in South America when the plane crashed. So we built the raft, and set out on the river on Feb. 15.

Q. So the “Snap Judgment” episode will air on the anniversary of you setting off on the raft.

A. Oh wow, I hadn’t even thought of that.

Q. So you set off. When did the lightning storm hit?

A. Feb.18. A trunk of a tree rammed through the plastic tent on the raft but the logs were OK to float on. We lost supplies overboard. We hardly had anything left to eat. Just one can of tuna, a little bit of sugar, powdered pea soup, a can of Carnation instant milk, and a jar of instant coffee.

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Q. And the waters were infested.

A. The water had caiman (related to alligators), piranhas, a tiny little fish called candiru — they’re minuscule, but we were told those can go right up your orifices, and eat you from the inside.

Q. And you were shot at.

A. Yes, at the border. We couldn’t stop the raft. It was night time. Fitz called out “Help!” in the dark and they started shooting at us. I guess they thought we were bandits, or had drugs. I don’t know what they thought. But they didn’t wait to find out.

Q. What was the scariest part?

A. The scariest part was when we thought no one was going to come and we were starving. We were pretty sure we were going to die. We were getting thinner and thinner, and didn’t know if we’d make it.

Q. Who found you?

A. Two Indians who were hunting. They had been following a monkey, and came into the flooding jungle by the river. They lost sight of the monkey, but saw us.

Q. And the film rights have been optioned by Matt Charman.

A. Fitz and I had a great dinner with him in London in September. He said he’s writing [the screenplay], but these movies, they take a long time. He was enthusiastic. He said he’s looking for a director, that’s the next step. It was fun.

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Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twiiter @laurendaley1.