Na­tion mourns soc­cer team crash vic­tims

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - WORLD - By REUTERS in Chapeco, Brazil

A down­pour drenched thou­sands of mourn­ers in the Brazil­ian city of Chapeco on Satur­day as they grieved over 50 cas­kets flown overnight to the sta­dium of the lo­cal Chapecoense soc­cer team, which was all but wiped out in an air crash on Monday in Colom­bia.

An arena filled with ban­ners and team faith­ful don­ning its green and white col­ors served as an open-air wake for lo­cals. Just a week ago, they were braced to cel­e­brate the plucky squad, which had as­cended from mi­nor leagues in re­cent years to reach the fi­nal of a ma­jor South Amer­i­can tour­na­ment.

In­stead, they looked on as Air Force troops, af­ter un­load­ing the bod­ies from cargo air­craft, fer­ried the cas­kets to makeshift tents erected on the team’s soggy home turf, where vic­tims’ fam­i­lies sat in sor­row.

Pres­i­dent Michel Te­mer, who flew in from Brazil’s cap­i­tal at dawn to re­ceive the cas­kets at a Chapeco air­field, be­stowed post­hu­mous hon­ors on the de­ceased ath­letes.

“This event, as you know, shook the whole coun­try,” Te­mer told re­porters in brief com­ments be­fore mak­ing the short drive to the sta­dium, where he re­mained silent for the rest of the emo- tional trib­ute. “This rain must be Saint Peter cry­ing.”

Monday’s disas­ter, which killed 71 pas­sen­gers and crew, shocked soc­cer fans the world over and plunged Brazil into mourn­ing. A BAe146 re­gional air­liner op­er­ated by Bo­li­vian char­ter com­pany LAMIA had ra­dioed that it was run­ning out of fuel be­fore smash­ing into a hill­side out­side Medellin, Colom­bia.

Only six peo­ple sur­vived, in­clud­ing just three mem­bers of the club, en route to the Copa Su­damer­i­cana fi­nal, the big­gest game in its his­tory. Ear­lier on Satur­day, the bod­ies of eight jour­nal­ists who also died in the crash ar­rived in Rio de Janeiro.

Vic­tims’ fam­i­lies in re­cent days have been out­raged by re­ports that the plane, which cir­cled for 16 min­utes while an­other air­craft emer­gency landed, had barely enough fuel for the flight.

Bo­li­vian Pres­i­dent Evo Mo­rales has pledged to take “dras­tic mea­sures” to de­ter­mine the cause. Bo­livia has sus­pended LAMIA’s op­erat- ing li­cense and re­placed the national avi­a­tion author­ity’s man­age­ment.

In Chapeco, a small agri­cul­tural city, dozens of fans kept vigil overnight at the sta­dium, where an im­promptu shrine swelled with fresh flow­ers and hand­made posters.

By Satur­day af­ter­noon, thou­sands more gath­ered, cheer­ing and ap­plaud­ing as the cas­kets ar­rived. Vis­i­tors from other parts of Brazil joined lo­cals, wav­ing flags of other teams in sol­i­dar­ity.

The cer­e­mony, at times solemn and at times rau­cous, was “as in­for­mal as for­mal­ity would al­low,” said an an­nouncer, thank­ing those who packed the 20,000 ca­pac­ity sta­dium to chant and sing in breaks be­tween speeches, trib­utes and prayers.

‘There are no words’

Fans said the tragedy was es­pe­cially painful for lo­cals who not only saw play­ers on the field, but on the streets and in apart­ment build­ings of a city of just 200,000 peo­ple.

“They could put Ney­mar on the field here and it wouldn’t re­place what we’ve lost,” said Ju­liana Frata, a lo­cal sup­porter, re­fer­ring to the Brazil­ian soc­cer star. “Those play­ers were our neigh­bors. It felt like ev­ery day you would bump into them and their fam­i­lies.”

Among dig­ni­taries in at­ten­dance was Gianni In­fantino, pres­i­dent of world soc­cer gov­ern­ing body FIFA. “There are no words that can di­min­ish the suf­fer­ing,” he said in a brief speech.

In re­sponse to out­pour­ings of support from soc­cer fans and clubs around the globe, Chapecoense hung a huge black ban­ner from the outer wall of its sta­dium.

“We looked for one word to thank all the kind­ness and we found many,” it read, fol­lowed by the words “thank you” in more than a dozen lan­guages.

Work­ers had laid out gi­ant ban­ners on the field, dec­o­rated with white flow­ers, car­ry­ing the lo­gos of Chapecoense and Atletico Na­cional, the Colom­bian team that held a memo­rial cer­e­mony on Wed­nes­day in­stead of host­ing the Cup fi­nal.

Mean­while, up­roar over the cause of the crash con­tin­ued.

Brazil­ian me­dia, cit­ing an in­ter­nal doc­u­ment, re­ported that an of­fi­cial at Bo­livia’s avi­a­tion agency had raised con­cerns about LAMIA’s flight plan.

Those play­ers were our neigh­bors. It felt like ev­ery day you would bump into them and their fam­i­lies.” Ju­liana Frata, sup­porter of Chapecoense soc­cer team

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