BOGOTA // Brazil on Tuesday declared three days of official mourning for the football players who died in a plane crash in Colombia, which killed 75 people.
Colombia’s police confirmed three football players are among six people who survived the crash.
The first division football team Chapecoense, from southern Brazil, were on their way to Medellin, Colombia, to play against that city’s Atletico Nacional team in the final of the Copa Sudamericana. The first leg of the cup final – South America’s second most important club competition – was scheduled for Wednesday but has now been suspended, and may not be played at all. The team’s manager was Caio Junior, who previously coached two sides in the UAE.
The footballers, their support team and journalists had travelled by commercial plane from Sao Paulo to Santa Cruz, Bolivia where they switched to a chartered British Aerospace 146 short-haul plane operated by a Bolivian charter airline named Lamia. The same aircraft had transported Argentina’s national squad to a match earlier this month in Brazil.
At 10pm on Monday local time, the Lamia aircraft, which was carrying 72 passengers and nine crew, declared an emergency due to an electrical failure. It went down about 50 kilometres from Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city, in an area called Cerro Gordo, the impact scattering the white shell of the plane over a mountainside. Authorities and rescuers were immediately activated but an air force helicopter had to turn back due to low visibility.
Elkin Ospina, the mayor of the town of La Ceja near the crash site, said the mountainous terrain was some 3,300 meters above sea level and very difficult to access. Rescuers carrying stretchers had to hike for more than half an hour to reach the site.
For Chapecoense, the team from Chapeco in Santa Catarina province, the disaster was a tragic end to a fairy tale. Chapecoense entered Brazil’s top division for the first time only in 2014 and is currently ranked ninth ahead of far more established and more famous teams such as Sao Paulo, Fluminense and Cruzeiro. The match against Medellin was to be the pinnacle of a glorious season and was seen as the most important in the club’s history.
Born Luiz Carlos Saroli but known as Caio Junior, the team’s 51-year-old manager guided Abu Dhabi’s Al Jazira to the 2012 President’s Cup crown and joined Dubai side Al Shabab in June 2014. During his two seasons there, he led the club to third place in the Arabian Gulf league in 2014/15, to the Gulf Clubs Championship in 2015 and the Gulf Cup last season. He was replaced by Dutch manager Fred Rutten in May after Al Shabab finished fifth in the UAE top flight. Mr Junior’s son, Matheus Sarolia was also meant to be on the flight but forgot his passport.
A statement from Al Shabab paid tribute to the club’s former coach “with great sadness and deep sorrow,” saying Mr Junior “was renowned for his sportsmanship and high morals.”
The surviving footballers were named as defender Alan Ruschel, reserve goalkeeper Jacson Follmann and Helio Hermito Zampier Neto. The club’s main goalkeeper, 31-year-old Marcos Padilha – known as Danilo – was also pulled alive from the wreckage but died later in hospital. It was his last-minute save in the semi-final against Argentina’s San Lorenzo which ensured Chapecoense’s place in the final of the Copa Sudamericana.
A journalist and a crew member were also listed as survivors.
“It’s a tragedy of huge proportions,” said Federico Gutierrez, the mayor of Medellin as he set off for the crash site.
“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. It is very difficult, a very great tragedy,” said the club’s vice-president Ivan Tozzo.
Argentinian football stars Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona and the legendary Pele of Brazil led tributes to the players.
“Brazilian football is in mourning. It is such a tragic loss,” Pele, 76, wrote on Twitter. Maradona said, “Sadly those lads, who were on the way to becoming a force in football, took the wrong plane.” In Spain, top teams Real Madrid and Barcelona each held a minute’s silence at their training sessions, while Barcelona striker Messi sent “sincere condolences” via Twitter.
As well as declaring three days of mourning, Brazilian president Michel Temer said he would deploy the Brazilian air force to fly relatives of the victims to Colombia. The Brazilian foreign ministry was also sending diplomats to Medellin, the Colombian city near the crash site, to help in the aftermath.
The mayor of Chapeco, the town whose club t had caught Brazilians’ imagination with its rise from obscurity, described the city’s despair. Breaking down in tears, Luciano Buligon said, “ We have moved from a dream to a true nightmare.”
* Associated Press with additional reporting by John McAuley