A chartered plane carrying a Brazilian soccer team to the biggest match in its history crashed into a Colombian hillside and broke into pieces, killing 71 people and leaving six survivors, officials said Tuesday.
The British Aerospace 146 short-haul plane, operated by a charter airline with roots in Venezuela, declared an emergency and lost radar contact just before 10 p.m. Monday (0300 GMT Tuesday) because of an electrical failure, according to Colombia’s aviation agency.
The aircraft, which had departed from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, was carrying the Chapecoense soccer team from southern Brazil.
“What was supposed to be a celebration has turned into a tragedy,” Medellin Mayor Federico Gutierrez said from the search and rescue command center.
Rescuers working through the night were initially heartened after pulling three passengers alive from the wreckage. But as the hours passed, heavy rainfall and low visibility 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 upon hitting the mountain top, with the nose facing downward into a steep valley.
Images broadcast on local media showed three passengers on stretchers and connected to IVs arriving at a hospital in ambulances. Among the survivors, player Alan Ruschel was in the most serious condition, and was later transported to another facility to undergo surgery for a spinal fracture. His teammates Helio Zampier and Jakson Follmann also suffered multiple trauma injuries, hospital officials said. A journalist traveling with the team was recovering from surgery and two Bolivian crew members who survived were in stable condition.
The aircraft is owned by LaMia, a company that started off as a regional operator in Venezuela but later relocated to Bolivia, where it was granted certification to operate last January. Despite such apparently limited experience, the airline has a close relationship with several premier South American squads.
Before being taken offline, LaMia’s website said it operated three 146 Avro short-haul jets made by British Aerospace and with a maximum range of around 2,965 kilometers (1,600 nautical miles) — about the same as the distance between Santa Cruz and Medellin, the route it was flying when it went down.
“By reducing payload the plane could fly further,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at consultant Teal Group in Fairfax, Virginia. “Still, it does appear to have been flying at the outer end of its range capability.”
Colombia’s aviation authority said initial reports suggest the aircraft was suffering electrical problems although investigators were also looking into an account from one of the survivors that the plane ran out of fuel about five minutes from its expected landing at Jose Maria Cordova airport outside Medellin.
“We can’t rule out anything. The investigation is ongoing and we’re going to await the results,” said Gustavo Vargas, a retired Bolivian air force general who is president of the airline.
Bolivia’s civil aviation agency said the aircraft picked up the Brazilian team in Santa Cruz, where players had arrived earlier in the day on a commercial flight from São Paulo. Spokesman Cesar Torrico said the plane underwent an inspection before departing for Colombia and reported no problems.
British Aerospace, which is now known as BAE Systems, says that the first 146-model plane took off in 1981 and that fewer than 400 were built in the U.K. through 2003. Around 220 of them are still in service in a variety of roles, including aerial firefighting and overnight freight services. The airplane that crashed was built in 1999, Vargas said.
Updated Wednesday, November 30, 2016 at 5:31 pm