* Most of Brazilian soccer team dies, plus staff and journalists
* Global soccer community plunged into mourning
* Chapecoense heading for biggest game in club’s history (Adds eyewitness, details on survivors)
By Julia Symmes Cobb and Paulo Whitaker
LA UNION, Colombia/ CHAPECO, Brazil, Nov 29 (Reuters) - A plane taking Brazilian soccer team Chapecoense to a South American cup final crashed in Colombia after reporting an electrical fault, killing 71 people, including most of the team and accompanying journalists.
The plane slammed into a mountainside near Medellin on Monday night as the team flew to face Atletico Nacional for the Copa Sudamericana, which is South America’s equivalent of the Europa League.
It was Colombia’s worst air disaster in two decades and there were only six survivors.
Global soccer was stunned with tributes pouring in from major figures from Pele to Lionel Messi.
The BAe 146 charter plane, en route from Bolivia where the team had a stopover, went down about 10:15 p.m. on Monday night with 68 passengers and a crew of nine on board.
The aircraft had reported electrical problems and declared an emergency minutes earlier as it neared its destination, Medellin airport officials said.
At the crash scene near the town of La Union in wooded highlands outside Medellin, dozens of bodies were laid out and covered with sheets around the wreckage.
The tail end of the plane virtually disintegrated in the crash. Rain hampered dozens of rescuers as they combed the muddy and forested area.
In addition to players, coaches and staff, 21 journalists had been on board the plane to cover the match, Brazilian news organizations said.
“We felt a loud, strong thud,” said German Lopez, 44, who grows flowers on the mountain range and could see the white wreckage from his kitchen.
“We ran to search for survivors. I saw someone die on a stretcher but helped save someone who was unconscious. I started to cry. I didn’t want my home known for this.”
Colombia’s civil aviation authority identified the six survivors as players Alan Ruschel, Jackson Follmann and Hélio Neto; journalist Rafael Valmorbida; Bolivian flight attendant Ximena Suarez; and Bolivian flight technician Erwin Tumiri.
Neto and Valmorbida were in “very delicate but stable” condition in intensive care, Dr. Guillermo Molina, head of a clinic treating them, told Reuters. Neto suffered trauma to his head, thorax and lungs, as well as open wounds to his knees.
Ruschel also was in intensive care but in stable condition, Dr. Ana Maria Gonzalez, director of another clinic also attending them, told Reuters. The two members of the flight staff were out of danger and under observation, she said.
Follmann had his right leg amputated, RCN radio reported, citing Chapecoense spokesman Gelson Dalla Costa.
Two black boxes were recovered from the crash site, Colombia’s government said.
It was the first time Chapecoense, a small club from the southern town of Chapeco which has had a fairy-tale rise since 2009 from Brazil’s fourth to top division, had reached the final of a major South American club competition.
Matches were cancelled around South America, and Brazil declared three days of mourning. Atletico Nacional asked for Chapecoense to be awarded the trophy in honor of those who died.
Brazil’s fellow top division teams offered to loan players to Chapecoense for next season and also asked the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) to give the club a three-year exemption from relegation.
“They were the hope of our city,” said Jean Panegalli, 17, a student in Chapeco, where fans were disconsolate. “They played for love of the shirt and not for money. They played with the commitment that only those who have lived here know.”
The BAe 146 was produced by a company that is now part of the UK’s BAE Systems.
The team took a regular flight to Santa Cruz in Bolivia and then went from there to Medellin on the plane run by a Bolivian-based company called LAMIA with roots in Venezuela.
By early afternoon, rescuers had recovered 69 bodies, which were to be flown out by helicopter for identification and then repatriation.
“The weather is hampering efforts,” said local fire official Misael Cadavid. “It’s a very rough topographical area and penetration is not easy.”
The mayor of Chapecó, Brazilian aviation disaster experts, police and health officials, and soccer federation leaders were on their way to Medellin on a Brazilian Air Force plane, said a spokesman for Brazil’s president.
Representatives of Globo TV and Fox Sports TV, the media with the most journalists on board, were also on the Air Force plane to help identify their journalists, he added. Two military planes will follow at a later date to fly the bodies home.
The crash evoked memories of a series of soccer air disasters in the 20th century, including the Munich crash in 1958 that killed 23 people, among them eight Manchester United players, journalists and travelling officials.
“TOWN COME TO A STOP”
Chapecoense, who qualified for the final after overcoming Argentine club San Lorenzo, were underdogs for the match against the Colombian club going for a rare double after winning the Copa Libertadores in July.
Brazil’s 21st biggest club by revenue, it has built success on a frugal spending policy that eschewed big-money signings and concentrated on blending young talent and experienced journeymen.
Several hundred dejected fans gathered around the team’s Conda stadium in Chapeco, many of them wearing Chapecoense’s green strip.
“It is still hard to believe what has happened to the Chapecoense team just when it was on the rise,” said Agenor Danieli, 64, a pensioner in the agricultural town of about 200,000 people in Santa Catarina state.
“We are in crisis. The town has come to a stop. Companies are giving people the day off so they can come here to the stadium. We need to pray. It still doesn’t feel real.”
Chapecoense’s best-known player was Cleber Santana, a midfielder whose best years were spent in Spain with Atletico Madrid and Mallorca. Coach Caio Junior also was experienced, having managed at some of Brazil’s biggest clubs, Botafogo, Flamengo and Palmeiras among them.
The crash prompted an outpouring of solidarity and grief on social media from the soccer community, with Brazilian top flight teams Flamengo and Santos tweeting messages of support.
The South American football federation suspended all games and other activities following the crash.
It was Colombia’s worst air accident since more than 160 people died on an American Airlines plane in 1995 in a mountainous area near Cali.
Bolivian civil aviation authority DGAC said the plane departed Santa Cruz under perfect conditions.
“The crew had their licenses in order, everything was in order for the flight,” DGAC head Cesar Varela told journalists.
The nine crew members, including the pilots, were Bolivian.
Writing Andrew Cawthorne and Helen Murphy; Additional reporting by Helen Murphy, Julia Symmes Cobb, Nelson Bocanegra, and Luis Jaime Acosta in Bogota; Andrew Downie, Anthony Boadle and Dan Flynn in Brazil, Girish Gupta in Caracas; Tim Hepher in Paris; Daniel Ramos in La Paz; Editing by Kieran Murray and Lisa Shumaker