LA UNION, Colombia/CHAPECO, Brazil (Reuters) - The pilot of a LAMIA Airlines plane that crashed in Colombia, virtually wiping out a Brazilian soccer team, had radioed that he was running out of fuel and needed to make an emergency landing, according to the co-pilot of another plane in the area.
The crash on Monday night killed 71 people. Six survived, including just three members of the Chapecoense soccer squad en route to the biggest game in their history, the Copa Sudamericana final.
Avianca co-pilot Juan Sebastian Upegui said in a chat message with friends that the LAMIA pilot told the control tower at the airport in Medellin that he was in trouble.
Priority had already been given to a plane from airline VivaColombia, which had also reported problems, Upegui said. Reuters confirmed the audio message, which local media played on Wednesday, was from Upegui.
After reporting being low on fuel, the LAMIA pilot then said he was experiencing electrical difficulties before the radio went silent.
“Mayday mayday ... Help us get to the runway ... Help, help,” Upegui described the pilot as saying. “Then it ended ... We all started to cry.”
The BAe 146, made by BAE Systems Plc, slammed into a mountainside. Besides the three players, a journalist and two crew members survived.
One survivor, Bolivian flight technician Erwin Tumiri, said he only saved himself by strict adherence to security procedure, while others panicked.
“Many passengers got up from their seats and started yelling,” he told Colombia’s Radio Caracol. “I put the bag between my legs and went into the fetal position as recommended.”
Bolivian flight attendant Ximena Suarez, another survivor, said the lights went out less than a minute before the plane slammed into the mountain, according to Colombian officials in Medellin.
Of the players, goalkeeper Jackson Follmann was recovering from the amputation of his right leg, doctors said.
Another player, defender Helio Neto, remained in intensive care with severe trauma to his skull, thorax and lungs.
Fellow defender Alan Ruschel had spine surgery.
Suarez and Tumiri were shaken and bruised but not in critical condition, medical staff said, while journalist Rafael Valmorbida was in intensive care for multiple rib fractures that partly collapsed a lung.
Investigators from Brazil have joined Colombian counterparts to check two black boxes from the crash site on a muddy hillside in wooded highlands near the town of La Union.
Bolivia, where LAMIA is based, and the United Kingdom also sent experts to help the probe.
The plane “came over my house, but there was no noise,” said Nancy Munoz, 35, who grows strawberries in the area. “The engine must have gone.”
By Wednesday morning, rescuers had recovered all of the bodies, which were to be sent to Brazil and Bolivia. All of the crew members were Bolivian.
Forty-five of the bodies have been identified, Colombian officials said.
Soccer-mad Brazil declared three days of mourning.
It was a bitter twist to a fairy-tale story for Chapecoense. Since 2009, the team rose from Brazil’s fourth to top division and was about to play the biggest match in its history in the first leg of the regional cup final in Medellin.
Global soccer greats from Lionel Messi to Pele sent condolences.
In the small city of Chapecó in remote southern Brazil, black and green ribbons were draped on fences, balconies and restaurant tables. Schools canceled classes, and businesses closed.
“It’s a miracle,” Flavio Ruschel, the father of Alan Ruschel, told Globo News as he prepared to fly to Colombia. “I don’t think I’ll be able to speak, just hug him and cry a lot.”
Black banners hung from a cathedral downtown and wrapped around a 14-meter statue of one of the town’s founding explorers.
Outside the team’s Conda stadium, a group of hardcore fans put up a tent and promised to keep vigil until the bodies of their idols returned to the city.
“We were there for them in victory, and we’re here for them in tragedy, rain or shine,” said fan Caua Regis. “Like family.”
The club is planning an open wake at their stadium, a city official said.
A homage was also planned for later on Wednesday at the stadium in Medellin of Atletico Nacional, which had been due to play Chapecoense in the regional final in the evening.
The Colombian team wants the trophy to be given to Chapecoense in honor of the dead.
“As far as we are concerned,” the team said, “Chapecoense will forever be the champions of the Copa Sudamericana Cup 2016.”
Writing by Helen Murphy and Andrew Cawthorne; Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle and Daniel Flynn in Brazil; Editing by Kieran Murray and Lisa Von Ahn
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