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75 killed as plane carrying Brazil footballers crashes

LA UNION, Colombia: Rescuers search for survivors yesterday in the wreckage of the LAMIA airlines charter plane carrying members of the Chapecoense Real football team that crashed in the mountains of Cerro Gordo. - AFP
LA UNION, Colombia: Rescuers search for survivors yesterday in the wreckage of the LAMIA airlines charter plane carrying members of the Chapecoense Real football team that crashed in the mountains of Cerro Gordo. – AFP

BOGOTA: A charter plane carrying a Brazilian football team crashed in the mountains in Colombia late Monday, killing as many as 75 people, officials said. But they said six survived, including four players. Brazil’s President Michel Temer declared three days of mourning for the victims.  The LAMIA airlines charter declared an emergency at around 10 pm local time (0300 GMT yesterday), reporting it had suffered “electrical failures”, and crashed a short time later near the city of Medellin, officials said.

The plane was carrying members of Chapecoense Real, a Brazilian football club that had risen from obscurity to play in the Copa Sudamericana finals today against Atletico Nacional of Colombia. “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,” club vice-president Ivan Tozzo told Globo SportTV. In all, there were 72 passengers and nine crew on board the British Aerospace 146.

A police commander, Jose Gerardo Acevedo, initially said only five people survived the crash, but Colombian authorities later said a sixth person was found alive, raising hopes there might be other survivors. “The rescue of a sixth survivor, player Helio Hermito Zampier Neto, who is in the process of being evacuated, is confirmed. The possibility that other people will be found alive has not been ruled out,” Colombia’s disaster risk management agency said.

One of the survivors was Alan Ruschel, a 27-year-old defender for the Brazilian team, the head of Colombia’s civil aeronautics agency, Alfredo Bocanegra, told reporters. Radio Caracol said two other players – Marcos Danilo Padilla and Jackson Follmann – also survived and were taken to hospitals, along with a flight attendant and a journalist.

The LAMIA airlines flight originated in Sao Paulo, Brazil and had made a stop in Santa Cruz, Bolivia before continuing on to Rionegro, a city near Medellin. The airport statement said the plane reported an emergency at 10 pm local time (0300 GMT). “It declared it had electrical failures.” It went down about 50 km from Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city, in an area called Cerro Gordo.

Elkin Ospina, the mayor of the town of La Ceja near the crash site, said the mountainous terrain was some 3,300 m above sea level and very difficult to access. Rescuers carrying stretchers had to hike for more than half an hour to reach the site. On its Twitter account, the airport said a plan to use an air force helicopter had to be shelved because of bad weather in the area.

Ospina said authorities were on the scene and hospitals and medical centers were preparing to receive the injured. But the bad weather forced the search to be suspended in the early hours of yesterday, with plans to resume. Colombia’s civil aeronautics agency said it had a team at the airport in response to the crash. Conmebol, the South American football confederation, meanwhile officially called off the Copa Sudamericana final that was to be played between Chapecoense and Atletico Nacional. “All activities of the confederation are suspended until further notice,” Conmebol said.

Chapecoense and Atletico Nacional were supposed to have faced off in today’s first leg of the final of the Copa Sudamericana, the second most prestigious club football tournament in South America after the Copa Libertadores. Chapecoense had reached the final after completing a victory on away goals last week over Argentinian side San Lorenzo in the semi-finals.

Chapecoense is widely regarded as one of the minnows of Brazilian club football, having been founded relatively recently in 1973 in the city of Chapeco in southern Santa Catarina state. After decades in the lower divisions, Chapecoense returned to Brazil’s top flight Serie A in 2014 for the first time since 1979. The club finished in 14th spot in the 2015 edition of the 20-team championship. Nine team members did not travel to Colombia.

Two weeks ago, the same plane was used to fly the Argentine national team with Lionel Messi on board to San Juan, Argentina for a World Cup qualifying match. Atletico Nacional said on its Twitter account it “profoundly laments and expresses solidarity with @chapelcoensereal for the accident that occurred.” – AFP

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