La Union, Colombia — Colombian authorities searched for answers Tuesday into the crash of a chartered airliner that slammed into the Andes mountains while transporting a Brazilian soccer team whose Cinderella story had won it a spot in the finals of one of South America’s most prestigious regional tournaments. All but six of the 77 people on board were killed.
The British Aerospace 146 short-haul plane declared an emergency and lost radar contact just before 10 p.m. Monday, according to Colombia’s aviation agency. It said the plane’s black boxes had been recovered and were being analyzed.
The aircraft, which departed from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, was carrying the Chapecoense soccer team from southern Brazil for Wednesday’s first leg of the two-game Copa Sudamericana final against Atletico Nacional of Medellin. Twenty-one Brazilian journalists were also on board the flight.
Colombian officials initially said the plane suffered an electrical failure but there was also heavy rainfall at the time of the crash. Authorities also said they were not ruling out the possibility, relayed to rescuers by a surviving flight attendant, that the plane ran out of fuel minutes before its scheduled landing at Jose Maria Cordova airport outside Medellin.
Whatever the cause, the emotional pain of Colombia’s deadliest air tragedy in two decades was felt across the soccer world.
Expressions of grief poured in as 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 Argentine legend Diego Maradona sent his condolences to the victims’ families over Facebook.
Brazil’s top teams offered to loan the small club players next season so they can rebuild following the sudden end to a fairy tale season that saw Chapecoense reach the tournament final just two years after making it into the first division for the first time since the 1970s. “It is the minimum gesture of solidarity that is within our reach,” the teams said in a statement.
Sportsmanship also prevailed, with Atletico Nacional asking that the championship title be given to its rival, whose upstart run had electrified soccer-crazed Brazil.
Rescuers working through the night were initially heartened after pulling three people alive from the wreckage. But as the hours passed, heavy fog and stormy weather 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, with the nose facing downward into a steep valley.
Officials initially reported 81 people were on board the flight, but later revised that to 77, saying four people on the flight manifest did not get on the plane.
Bolivia’s civil aviation agency said the aircraft picked up the Brazilian team in Santa Cruz, where the players had arrived on a commercial flight from Sao Paulo. Spokesman Cesar Torrico said the plane underwent an inspection before departing and reported no problems.
“We can’t rule out anything. The investigation is ongoing and we’re going to await the results,” said Gustavo Vargas, the airline’s president.
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