Plane carrying a Brazilian team crashes; 71 are dead
Chapecoense had made fairy-tale run to final of top S. American tournament
LA UNION, COLOMBIA — Colombian authorities searched for answers Tuesday into the crash of a chartered airliner that slammed into the Andes mountains while transporting a Brazilian soccer team whose Cinderella story had wonit a spot in the finals of one of South America’s most prestigious regional tournaments. All but six of the 77 people on board were killed.
The British Aerospace 146 short-haul plane declared an emergency and lost radar contact just before 10 p.m. Monday, according to Colombia’s aviation agency. It said the plane’s black boxes had been recovered and were being analyzed.
The aircraft, which departed from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, was carrying the Chapecoense soccer team from southern Brazil for today’s first leg of the two-game Copa Sudamericana final against Atletico Nacional of Medellin. Twenty-one Brazilian journalists were also on board.
Colombian officials initially said the plane suffered an electrical failure, but there was also heavy rainfall at the time of the crash. Authorities also said they were not ruling out the possibility, relayed to rescuers by a surviving flight attendant, that the plane ran out of fuel minutes before its scheduled landing at Jose Maria Cordova airport outside Medellin.
Whatever the cause, the emotional pain of Colombia’s deadliest air tragedy in two decades was felt across the soccer world.
Expressions of grief poured in as South America’s federation canceled all scheduled matches in a show of solidarity, Real Madrid’s team interrupted its training for a minute of silence and Argentine legend Diego Maradona sent his condolences to the victims’ families over Facebook.
Brazil’s top teams offered to lend the small club players next season so they can rebuild after the sudden end to a fairy-tale season in which Chapecoense reached the tournament final just two years after making it into the first division for the first time since the 1970s. “It is the minimum gesture of solidarity that is within our reach,” the teams said in a statement.
Atletico Nacional asked that the championship be given to its rival, whoseupstart run had electrified soccer-crazed Brazil.
Rescuers working through the night were initially heartened after pulling three people alive from the wreckage. But as the hours passed, heavy fog and stormy weather grounded helicopters and slowed efforts to reach the crash site.
At daybreak, dozens of bodies scattered across a muddy mountainside were collected into white bags. They were then loaded onto several Black Hawk helicopters that had to perform a tricky maneuver to land on the crest of the Andes. The plane’s fuselage appeared to have broken into two, with the nose facing downward into a steep valley.
Officials initially reported 81 people were on board the flight, but later revised that to 77, saying four people on the flight manifest did not get onto the plane.
Images broadcast on local television showed three of the six survivors on stretchers and connected to IVs arriving at a hospital in ambulances. Chapecoense defender Alan Ruschel was in the most serious condition, and was later transported to another facility to undergo surgery for a spinal fracture. Teammates Helio Zampier and Jakson Follmann, the goalkeeper, also suffered multiple trauma injuries, with doctors having to amputate Follmann’s right leg.
A journalist traveling with the team was recovering from surgery and two Bolivian crew members were in stable condition, hospital officials said.
The aircraft is owned by LaMia, a charter company that started in Venezuela but later relocated to Bolivia, where it was certified to operate last January. Despite such apparently limited experience, the airline has a close relationship with several premier South American teams.
Earlier this month, the plane involved in Monday’s crash transported Barcelona forward Lionel Messi and the Argentine national team from Brazil after a World Cup qualifier match. The airliner also appears to have transported the national squads of Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela over the past three months, according to a log of recent activity provided by Flightradar24.com.
Before being taken offline, LaMia’s website said it operated three 146 Avro short-haul jets made by British Aerospace, with a maximum range of around 2,965 kilometers (1,600 nautical miles) — about the same as the distance between Santa Cruz and Medellin.
Bolivia’s civil aviation agency said the aircraft picked up the Brazilian team in Santa Cruz, where the players had arrived on a commercial flight from Sao Paulo. Spokesman Cesar Torrico said the plane underwent an inspection before departing for Colombia and reported no problems.