CHAPECO, Brazil – Brazil’s president on Saturday bestowed honors on the victims of an air crash as Air Force troops unloaded 50 coffins flown in overnight from Colombia, site of the disaster this week that killed 71 people and wiped out a rural soccer team.
The Brazilian town of Chapeco, its streets wet with rain and buildings draped in the green of its devastated club, turned out to receive the bodies and attend a wake at a local stadium for members of the team, which ascended from minor leagues in recent years to reach the championship of a South American tournament.
Monday’s disaster shocked soccer fans the world over and plunged Brazil, South America’s biggest nation, into mourning. The BAe146 regional airliner operated by Bolivian charter company LAMIA had radioed that it was running out of fuel before smashing into a hillside outside the Colombian city of Medellin.
Only six people survived, including just three members of the soccer side Chapecoense en route to the Copa Sudamericana final, the biggest game in its history.
Reports in Brazilian media that the plane, which circled outside Medellin for 16 minutes while another aircraft made an emergency landing, had barely enough fuel for the flight from Bolivia have outraged relatives of the victims.
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Bolivian President Evo Morales pledged to take “drastic measures” to determine what caused the crash. Bolivia has suspended LAMIA’s operating license and replaced the national aviation authority’s management.
In Chapeco, a small agricultural town in southern Brazil, dozens of fans kept vigil overnight in a drizzle at Chapecoense’s stadium, where the wake will be held after the caskets are transported from a nearby airfield.
By dawn fans were lined up around the block and began streaming into the stadium, draped with banners and the team’s green and white, when doors opened shortly thereafter.
An impromptu shrine swelled with fresh flowers and handmade posters and fans from other parts of Brazil joined the locals, waving flags of other teams in solidarity. Some supporters, even as organizers piped somber classical music over loudspeakers, sang raucous soccer chants.
Fans said the wake would provide closure for a town whose excitement at Wednesday night’s cup final had turned to anguish.
“I will only really believe it when we see the coffins and the families,” said Pamela Lopes, 29, who arrived for the vigil at 10 pm local time Friday night. “At first there was commotion, but now a great sadness has set in.”
Some 100,000 fans, about half the city’s population, were expected to attend, as was Gianni Infantino, president of world soccer governing body FIFA.
Brazilian President Michel Temer presided over a brief ceremony at the airport, where he posthumously decorated the victims and offered condolences to their families. It was unclear whether Temer, wary of possible political protests, would attend the wake.
A banner of thanks
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 laid out giant banners on the field, decorated with white flowers, carrying the logos of Chapecoense and Atlético Nacional, the Colombian team that held a memorial ceremony on Wednesday instead of hosting the Cup final.
Cleusa Eichner, 52, attended the stadium for the vigil – as she has so often for games – but was wary about seeing the players’ caskets.
“I can still see those players entering with their kids in their arms. I’d rather keep that image in my head, hold on to that happiness, than replace it with nothing.”
Brazilian media, citing an internal document, reported that an official at Bolivia’s aviation agency had raised concerns about LAMIA’s flight plan.
The official urged the airline to come up with an alternative route because the journey of four hours and 22 minutes was the same length as the plane’s maximum flight range.
A Colombian civil aviation document seen by Reuters confirmed the flight time was set to be four hours and 22 minutes.
LAMIA Chief Executive Officer Gustavo Vargas on Wednesday said the plane had been correctly inspected before departure and should have had enough fuel for about 4-1/2 hours. He said it was the pilot’s responsibility to decide whether to stop to refuel.
The pilot’s father-in-law, Roger Pinto Molina, who lives in Brazil, apologized to the Brazilian people in an interview with GloboNews.
“We want to say to millions of Brazilians, especially the families, sons, parents and brothers in Chapeco that we are very sorry,” Molina said.