LA UNION, Colombia (AP) — A chartered plane carrying a Brazilian soccer team to the biggest match in its history crashed into a Colombian hillside and broke into pieces, killing 71 people and leaving six survivors, officials said Tuesday.
The British Aerospace 146 short-haul plane, operated by a charter airline with roots in Venezuela, declared an emergency and lost radar contact just before 10 p.m. Monday (0300 GMT Tuesday) because of an electrical failure, according to Colombia’s aviation agency.
The aircraft, which had departed from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, was carrying the Chapecoense soccer team from southern Brazil for Wednesday’s first leg of a two-game Copa Sudamericana final against Atletico Nacional of Medellin.
“What was supposed to be a celebration has turned into a tragedy,” Medellin Mayor Federico Gutierrez said from the search and rescue command center.
As the depth of what is Colombia’s deadliest air tragedy in two decades sank in, sportsmanship prevailed and Atletico Nacional asked that the title of the continent’s second-most important club championship be given to its up-and-coming rival, whose fairy tale run had electrified soccer-crazed Brazil.
Expressions of grief poured in from all over the soccer world. South America’s federation canceled all scheduled matches in a show of solidarity, Real Madrid’s squad interrupted its training for a minute of silence and Argentina legend Diego Maradona sent his condolences to the victims’ families over Facebook.
Rescuers working through the night were initially heartened after pulling three passengers alive from the wreckage. But as the hours passed, heavy rainfall and low visibility 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 mountains. The plane’s fuselage appeared to have broken into two upon hitting the mountain top, with the nose facing downward into a steep valley.
Images broadcast on local television showed three passengers on stretchers and connected to an IV arriving at a hospital in ambulances. Among the survivors, Chapecoense defender Alan Ruschel was in the most serious condition, and was later transported to another facility to undergo surgery for a spinal fracture. His teammates Helio Zampier and Jakson Follmann also suffered multiple trauma injuries, hospital officials said. A journalist traveling with the team was recovering from surgery and two Bolivian crew members who survived were in stable condition.
The aircraft is owned by LaMia, a company that started off as a regional operator in Venezuela but later relocated to Bolivia, where it was granted certification to operate last January. Despite such apparently limited experience the airline has a close relationship with several premier South American squads.
Earlier this month, the plane involved in the crash transported Barcelona forward Lionel Messi and the national team from Brazil to Colombia between World Cup qualifier matches. The airliner also appears to have transported the national squads of Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela over 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 and with a maximum range of around 2,965 kilometers (1,600 nautical miles) — about the same as the distance between Santa Cruz and Medellin, the route it was flying when it went down.
“By reducing payload the plane could fly further,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at consultant Teal Group in Fairfax, Virginia. “Still, it does appear to have been flying at the outer end of its range capability.”
Colombia’s aviation authority said initial reports suggest the aircraft was suffering electrical problems although investigators were also looking into an account from one of the survivors that the plane ran out of fuel about five minutes from its expected landing at Jose Maria Cordova airport outside Medellin.
“We can’t rule out anything. The investigation is ongoing and we’re going to await the results,” said Gustavo Vargas, a retired Bolivian air force general who is president of the airline.
Bolivia’s civil aviation agency said the aircraft picked up the Brazilian team in Santa Cruz, where players had arrived earlier in the day on a commercial flight from Sao Paulo. Spokesman Cesar Torrico said the plane underwent an inspection before departing for Colombia and reported no problems.
British Aerospace, which is now known as BAE Systems, says that the first 146-model plane took off in 1981 and that fewer than 400 were built in the U.K. through 2003. Around 220 of are still in service in a variety of roles, including aerial firefighting and overnight freight services. The airplane that crashed was built in 1999, Vargas said.
A video published on the team’s Facebook page showed the team readying for its flight Monday in Sao Paulo’s Guarulhos international airport. Photos of team members in the cockpit and posing in front of the plane ahead of departure quickly spread across social media.
The team, from the small agro-industrial city of Chapeco, was in the midst of a Cinderella season. It joined Brazil’s first division in 2014 for the first time since the 1970s and advanced last week to the Copa Sudamericana finals — the equivalent of the UEFA Europa League tournament — after defeating Argentina’s San Lorenzo and Independiente, as well as Colombia’s Junior.
“This morning I said goodbye to them and they told me they were going after the dream, turning that dream into reality,” Chapecoense board member Plinio De Nes told Brazil’s TV Globo. “The dream was over early this morning.”
The team is so modest that tournament organizers ruled that its 22,000-seat arena was too small to host the final match, which was moved to a stadium 300 miles (480 kilometers) to the north, in the city of Curitiba.
The team won over fans across Brazil with its spectacular run to the finals, with some even taking up a campaign online to move the final match to Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Maracana stadium, where the 2014 World Cup finals were played.
The tragedy of so many young and talented players’ lives and dreams cut short brought an outpouring of support far beyond Brazil’s borders. Atletico Nacional said in a statement it was offering its title to the team, saying in a statement that the accident “leaves an indelible mark on the history of Latin American and world soccer.”
Closer to home, fans mourned the terrible loss.
“This is unbelievable. I am walking on the grass of the stadium and I feel like I am floating,” Andrei Copetti told The Associated Press in Capeco. “No one understands how a story that was so amazing could suffer such a devastating reversal. For many people here reality has still not struck.”
–By Luis Benavides and Joshua Goodman
Goodman reported from Bogota. Associated Press writers Mauricio Savarese and Stephen Wade in Chapeco, Brazil; Renata Brito in Rio de Janeiro; Carlos Valdez in La Paz, Bolivia, and David Koenig in Dallas contributed to this report.