LA UNIÓN, Colombia: The football world mourned Tuesday (Wednesday in Manila) after a plane carrying a Brazilian team crashed in the mountains in Colombia, killing 71 people but miraculously leaving six survivors, officials said.
Football legends Pele and Maradona as well as current superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo led tributes to the players of Chapecoense Real, a humble team whose march to glory was cut abruptly short.
Having risen only recently from obscurity, the team was on its way to play in the finals of the Copa Sudamericana, South America’s second-biggest club tournament, when disaster struck.
“The pain is terrible. Just as we had made it, I will not say to the top, but to have national prominence, a tragedy like this happens,” club vice-president Ivan Tozzo told Globo SporTV.
“It is very difficult, a very great tragedy.”
The charter plane, flown by Bolivian company LAMIA, reported “electrical failures” around 10:00 pm Monday (0300 GMT Tuesday) and crashed soon after near the city of Medellin, its destination, officials said.
The plane’s black box recorders have been found, but there was no word on how long it would take to analyze them.
The wreckage of the white fuselage was plastered over a remote hillside in northwestern Colombia.
The dead included most of the team and 20 Brazilian journalists traveling to cover the match.
The six survivors are being treated in hospital, officials said.
“I have just seen the plane and given the state it is in, it is a miracle that six people survived,” said Governor Luis Perez of Antioquia department, where the plane went down.
One survivor, goalkeeper Jackson Follmann, had to have his right leg amputated, said the San Vicente Foundation Hospital outside Medellin.
It reported he was “stabilizing” in intensive care.
Spared by chance
Colombia’s civil aviation authority initially said 75 people were killed. But it later emerged that four people on the passenger manifest had not in fact boarded the plane — a club official, a journalist, the mayor of the team’s hometown and the speaker of the state assembly.
“It’s one of those things in life. Only God knows why I ended up staying behind,” said Luciano Buligon, the mayor of Chapeco in southern Brazil.
Crying, Plinio Filho, the head of the club’s advisory council, recalled the players telling him they were off to “chase a dream” as they left.
“The group was like a family. It was a group of friends, where everyone laughed a lot, even in defeat,” he said.
Footage of the club on board the plane before take-off aired on TV channel Gigavision in Bolivia, where the team departed from the city of Santa Cruz after taking a commercial flight from Brazil.
Coach Mauro Stumpf told the TV network he hoped the plane would “bring (us) luck” like it did when the team flew the same company to a quarter-final match last month.
The British Aerospace 146 airliner entered into operation in 1999 and previously belonged to two other airlines, a spokesman for the manufacturer told AFP.
Specialist sites said the same plane was used two weeks ago to fly the Argentine national team with Messi on board to San Juan, Argentina for a World Cup qualifying match.
Britain’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch said it was sending experts along with representatives of the plane’s manufacturer BAE Systems to Colombia to help with investigations.
The plane went down about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Medellin, in a remote mountain area called Cerro Gordo.
“We found ourselves faced with a disastrous scene. The plane was completely destroyed,” fire service captain Elkin Gonzalez told AFP.
Rescuers and aviation authorities said the survivors were three players, two crew members and a journalist.
The team’s lead goalkeeper, Marcos Danilo Padilha, 31, died on the way to hospital, the civil aviation authority said.
His last-minute save in the semi-final had sealed the team’s place in the Copa Sudamericana final.
The journalists killed included six employees from the Brazilian affiliate of Fox Sports television. One of them, Mario Sergio, was a well-known announcer and former Brazilian international player.
The cup final first-leg had been scheduled for Wednesday against Atletico Nacional of Colombia.
In an emotional gesture, Nacional called for Chapecoense to be awarded the cup.
Chapecoense is seen as one of the minnows of Brazilian club football.
After decades in the lower divisions, it returned to Brazil’s top flight Serie A in 2014 for the first time since 1979.
“We have moved from a dream to a true nightmare,” said Buligon, the mayor.