Dozens of hearses return Colombia crash victims home

Dozens of hearses carrying the coffins of those killed in a plane flying Brazil’s Chapecoense soccer team crashed into a central Colombian mountain began leaving Medellin for the airport on Friday to be flown home.

The disaster on Monday night killed 71 people and shocked soccer fans the world over. The LAMIA Bolivia BAe146 airliner apparently ran out of fuel, lost electrical power and was preparing for an emergency landing as it crashed.

Only six people survived, including three members of the soccer squad en route to the Copa Sudamericana final, the biggest game in its history. Video footage of players seated before takeoff showed them laughing and pulling faces at the camera.

The tragedy plunged Latin America’s largest nation, Brazil, into mourning as it reels from a deep recession and political crisis.

The bodies and ashes of five Bolivians will leave shortly on a Hercules aircraft, and those of a Venezuelan will be on a commercial flight. The remains of a Paraguayan victim left Colombia late on Thursday.

A convoy carrying the 64 dead Brazilians will leave the funeral home in Medellin later on Friday for the journey along a mountain road to Rionegro airport. From there, they will be flown back to Brazil.

The Brazilian Air Force said three Hercules C-130 transport planes were ready to fly from Manaus to pick up the coffins that are scheduled to arrive early on Saturday morning for funeral services in Chapeco, the club’s small farming hometown in southern Brazil.

Temporary structures in the team’s stadium will shelter the coffins of players, staff and journalists for an open-air wake.

Some 100,000 fans, about half the city’s population, are likely to attend, as is Gianni Infantino, president of world soccer governing body FIFA. Brazilian President Michel Temer was due to fly to Chapeco on Saturday morning.

The mood in Chapeco was subdued on Friday as some schools resumed classes, but city hall remained officially in mourning. Dozens of fans continued a vigil at the Chapecoense stadium as an impromptu shrine continued to swell with fresh flowers and handmade posters.

Roberto Di Marchi came to Colombia to escort the body of his cousin Nilson Folle Junior, 29, a director of Chapecoense, back home.

He always traveled with the team, to every game,” Di Marchi said at the funeral home. “He loved the Chapecoense.”

Folle’s father was one of the club’s founders, Di Marchi added.

Among surviving players, goalkeeper Jackson Follmann’s right leg was amputated, while defender Alan Ruschel had spinal surgery. Fellow defender Helio Neto was in intensive care with severe trauma to his skull, thorax and lungs.

Neto’s father told Brazilian media that doctors said his son would be able to play soccer again.

Two members of the Bolivian flight crew, Ximena Suarez and Erwin Tumiri, were bruised but not in critical condition, while journalist Rafael Valmorbida was treated in intensive care for multiple rib fractures that partly collapsed a lung. Tumiri may soon be released, local media reported.

INVESTIGATION

Two black boxes from the crash site on a muddy hillside in wooded highlands near the town of La Union will be sent this week for examination by experts in Britain, where the jet was manufactured, officials said.

The Colombian aviation authority’s initial investigation confirmed Bolivian pilot Miguel Quiroga’s final words to the control tower at Medellin’s airport on a crackly recording obtained by local media.

He can be heard telling the control tower the plane was “in total failure, total electrical failure, without fuel.”

Quiroga requested urgent permission to land before the audio went silent. Air traffic control had asked him to wait while another flight made an emergency landing.

The plane circled for about 16 minutes from its first communication with the tower until the crash, officials said. International flight regulations require aircraft to carry enough reserve fuel to fly for 30 minutes after reaching their destination.

Bolivian authorities said they were suspending LAMIA’s operating license and replacing the management of the nation’s aviation authority to ensure a transparent investigation. It said neither decision implied wrongdoing.

Reports said, citing an internal document, reported an official at Bolivia’s aviation agency raised concerns about LAMIA’s flight plan.

The official urged the airline to come up with an alternative route because the journey of 4 hours and 22 minutes was the same length as the plane’s maximum flight range. The reports said the official, whom Reuters could not reach for comment, did not have the power to stop the flight.

A Colombian civil aviation document that it was confirmed the flight time was set to be 4 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. In such situations, he said, the pilot decides whether to refuel.

Reuters/Hauwa M.