Colombia’s worst air crash in two decades snuffed out a storybook run by a Brazilian soccer team, and authorities are digging in trying to figure out why a chartered jetliner crashed in the Andes, killing all but six of the 77 people aboard.
The country’s aviation agency said Tuesday that the British Aerospace 146′s cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder had been found among the wreckage strewn over a mountainside and were already being studied by experts.
Initially, Colombian officials said the short-haul jet suffered an electrical failure, but there was also heavy rain when the crew declared an emergency and the plane disappeared from radar just before 10 p.m. Monday.
Authorities also said they were not ruling out the possibility the aircraft ran out of fuel minutes before it was to land at Jose Maria Cordova airport outside Medellin, a report given to rescuers by a surviving flight attendant. Officials said they hoped to interview her Wednesday.
Emotional pain resonated across the region over the loss of much of the Chapecoense soccer team from southern Brazil. Thousands of grieving fans in green and white filled the Chapecoense stadium on Tuesday night, singing their team’s praises and chanting one by one the names of players who lost their lives in a plane crash a day earlier.
“We are champions!” they cried as club staff and relatives of the deceased joined hands in a circle at midfield, part of an impromptu ceremony that swung between mourning for the lives lost and pride in the unlikely feats of their fallen heroes.
Less than a week ago, the streets of this small farming city rang with cheers and firecrackers as the team punched its ticket to the final of the Sudamericana Cup, one of the continent’s most prestigious tournaments, capping a fairy tale rise from Brazil’s fourth division in 2009 to the first division.
Players ‘like neighbours’ in small city
The aircraft, which departed from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, was carrying the team to Wednesday’s first game in the two-game Copa Sudamericana final against Atletico Nacional of Medellin. Twenty-one Brazilian journalists were travelling with the team.
Three Chapecoense players were among the six people who survived the crash. Dalla Costa said defender Helio Neto was undergoing cranial surgery and reserve goalkeeper Jackson Follmann had a leg amputated. Defender Alan Ruschel was reported in intensive care but in stable condition. “
A journalist also underwent surgery and two Bolivian crew members were in stable condition, hospital officials said.
“We’ve passed from a dream into a nightmare,” said metalworker Fernando de Oliveira, who left work to bring his crying wife and two children to the stadium in Chapeco in a show of support. Businesses closed, schools cancelled classes and the mayor called off municipal Christmas celebrations as he declared 30 days of mourning.
A sea of fans filled the streets outside a cathedral downtown for an evening mass before streaming down the road to the stadium.
The tragedy echoed throughout global soccer, but the scale of the loss was staggering in a city where it takes a 10th of the population to fill the small concrete stadium’s 20,000 seats.
“This is a little city from the interior, but it felt like we grew along with our team,” said Laura Zanotelli, 17, one of more than a hundred fans who gathered in the Chapacoense stands late into the afternoon, consoling each other and praying aloud.
“So many of our players are from here. I would run into them and their families in the street, like neighbours,” she said.
South America’s soccer federation cancelled all scheduled matches in a show of solidarity, while the Real Madrid and Barcelona clubs interrupted their training sessions for a minute of silence. Brazil’s top teams offered to lend players to the small club for next season as it rebuilds, saying: “It is the minimum gesture of solidarity that is within our reach.”
In a moving gesture, Atletico Nacional asked that the championship title be given to Chapecoense, whose upstart run in the tournament electrified soccer-crazed Brazil.
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 apparently limited experience, the airline has a close relationship with several premier South American soccer squads.
Plane recently carried Messi, Argentina
Earlier this month, the plane involved in the crash transported star Barcelona forward Lionel Messi and Argentina’s national team from Brazil following a World Cup qualifying match. The airliner also appeared to have transported the national squads of Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela in the last 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 kilometres — about the distance between Santa Cruz and Medellin.
Hans Weber, a longtime adviser to U.S. aviation authorities, said the aircraft’s range deserves careful investigation. He noted that air distance between cities is usually measured by the shortest route but planes rarely fly in a straight line, with pilots steering around turbulence or changing course for other reasons.
Given the model of the plane and the fact that it was flying close to capacity, “I would be concerned that the pilots may have been cutting it too close,” Weber said.
A spokesman for Bolivia’s civil aviation agency, Cesar Torrico, said the plane was inspected before departing for Colombia and no problems were reported.
Moments before the plane took off, the team’s coaching staff gave an interview to a Bolivian television station in which they praised the airline, saying it brought them good fortune when it flew them to Colombia last month for the championship’s quarterfinals, which they won.
“Now we’re going to do this new trip and we hope they bring us good luck like they did the first time,” athletic director Mauro Stumpf told Gigavision TV.
Team chairman Gelson Dalla Costa said the club’s doctors were traveling to Medellin on Tuesday to collect the bodies.
A poster at Chapeco on Tuesday night celebrated, in a child’s handwriting, Chapacoense’s meteoric rise into top-flight Brazilian soccer: “They never tired of climbing and now they’re in heaven.”