By Fredy Builes and Paolo Whitaker
LA UNION, Colombia/ CHAPECO, Brazil (Reuters) – A charter plane carrying Brazilian soccer team Chapecoense to the biggest game in its history crashed in the Colombian mountains after an electrical fault, killing 75 people on board, authorities said on Tuesday.
Colombia’s worst air disaster in two decades killed all but three of players on the team from Brazil’s top soccer league as it flew to face Atletico Nacional of Medellin in the first leg of the Copa Sudamericana final, South America’s equivalent of the Europa League.
Global soccer was stunned with tributes pouring in from major figures including Pele, Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney.
The BAe 146 plane, en route from Bolivia where the team had a stopover, went down about 10:15 p.m. on Monday night with 72 passengers and a crew of nine on board.
(See graphic – http://tmsnrt.rs/2fM7Mww)
The aircraft had reported electrical problems and declared an emergency minutes earlier as it neared its destination, Medellin airport officials said.
Flight tracking service Flightradar24 said on Twitter the last signal from flight 2933 came when it about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from its destination at an altitude of 15,500 feet (4,724 m).
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 plane was shattered against a mountainside with the tail end virtually disintegrated. Rain hampered dozens of rescuers as they combed the muddy and forested area.
Colombia’s civil aviation head, Alfredo Bocanegra, said there were 75 confirmed fatalities. The 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.
Two of the survivors were in grave condition.
In addition to players, coaches and staff, 21 journalists had been on board the plane to cover the match, Brazilian news organizations said.
It was the first time Chapecoense, a small club from the southern Brazilian town of Chapeco, had reached the final of a major South American club competition.
Matches were canceled 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.
“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 late morning, rescuers had recovered about 60 bodies which were to be flown out by helicopter for identification and then repatriation.
“The weather is hampering efforts but we hope conditions will improve during the day,” said local fire official Misael Cadavid. “It’s a very rough topographical area and penetration is not easy.”
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 traveling officials.
World governing body FIFA said on Twitter its “thoughts were with the victims, their families, fans of Chapecoense and media organizations in Brazil on this tragic day.”
Chapecoense qualified for the biggest game in its history after overcoming the Argentine club San Lorenzo in the semi-final on away goals following a 1-1 draw in Buenos Aires and 0-0 draw at home.
They were underdogs for the match against a club going for a rare double after winning the Copa Libertadores in July.
Chapecoense was the 21st biggest club in Brazil in terms of revenue in 2015, bringing in 46 million reais ($13.5 million), according to a list by Brazilian bank Itau BBA.
“WE ARE IN CRISIS”
The club has built its 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. At least one young fan burst into tears
“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.
Porto goalkeeper Iker Casillas tweeted: “My condolences for the plane accident that carried @ChapecoenseReal. Tough moment for football. Good luck and stay strong!”
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.
He said a team would head to Colombia to help investigate the crash.
LAMIA Bolivia is a private charter company certified by the DGAC for domestic and international flights and in operation for around a year, authorities said.
The nine crew members, including the pilots, were Bolivian.
“The pilots had significant experience because they were pilots from military air transport and they were used to flying this kind of plane,” said DGAC security director Julio Fortun.
(Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb and Andrew Cawthorne; Additional reporting by Helen Murphy, Nelson Bocanegra, Julia Symmes Cobb 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 Bill Trott)