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Soccer plane crashed without fuel, officials investigating

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Fans of Chapecoense soccer team pay tribute to Chapecoense's players at the Arena Conda stadium in Chapeco, Brazil, November 30, 2016. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker
Fans of Chapecoense soccer team pay tribute to Chapecoense's players at the Arena Conda stadium in Chapeco, Brazil, November 30, 2016. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker

MEDELLIN, Colombia (Reuters) - The plane that crashed in Colombia killing 71 people including most of a Brazilian soccer team had no fuel on impact, according to initial findings by aviation officials, prompting an investigation into why the plane flew under those conditions.

The comments by the civil aviation authority late Wednesday night confirmed Bolivian pilot Miguel Quiroga's final words to the control tower at Medellin's airport on a crackly audio obtained by Colombian media.

"When we arrived at the accident site and were able to inspect the remains we could confirm that the aircraft had no fuel at the time of impact," said Freddy Bonilla, secretary of airline security at Colombia's aviation authority.

A recording of the pilot's final words can be heard telling the control tower the plane was "in total failure, total electrical failure, without fuel."

He requested urgent permission to land before the audio went silent. The BAe 146, made by BAE Systems Plc, slammed into a mountainside next to the town of La Union outside Medellin.

Only six on board the LAMIA Bolivia charter flight survived, including three of the Chapecoense soccer team en route to the Copa Sudamericana final, the biggest game in their history, a journalist and two crew members.

International flight regulations require aircraft to carry enough reserve fuel so they can fly for 30 minutes after reaching their destination in case they need to circle before landing or fly to another airport.

"In this case, sadly, the aircraft did not have enough fuel to meet the regulations for contingency," Bonilla said in Medellin. "One of the theories we are working on is that finding no fuel at the crash site or in the alimentation tubes, the aircraft suffered fell for lack of fuel."

LAMIA Chief Executive Officer Gustavo Vargas said on Wednesday it is at the pilot's discretion to refuel en route. He said plane should have enough fuel for about four and a half hours, more or less depending on weather.

"Weather conditions influence a lot, but he had alternatives in Bogota in case of a fuel deficiency. He had all the power to go to refuel. It's a decision that the pilot takes," Vargas told reporters in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

Bonillo said weather conditions in Medellin at the time were optimum for a successful landing.

Some have also questioned why Chapecoense used the charter company instead of a commercial airline.

Investigators from Brazil have joined Colombian counterparts to check two black boxes from the crash site on a muddy hillside in wooded highlands near La Union.

Bolivia, where LAMIA is based, and the United Kingdom also sent experts to help the probe.

The club's vice president, Luiz Antonio Palaoro, said LAMIA had a track record of transporting soccer teams around South America and it had used the airline before.

"We are dealing with the humanitarian aspect of the families and the victims," Palaoro told reporters in Chapeco. "After that, we are going to have to think about restructuring the team and also in the appropriate legal measures."

Among surviving players, goalkeeper Jackson Follmann's right leg was amputated, while defender Helio Neto was in intensive care with severe trauma to his skull, thorax and lungs, and fellow defender Alan Ruschel had spinal surgery.

Two of the Bolivian flight crew, Ximena Suarez and Erwin Tumiri, were bruised but not in critical condition, while journalist Rafael Valmorbida was in intensive care for multiple rib fractures that partly collapsed a lung.

Rescuers have recovered all of the bodies, which are to be sent to Brazil and Bolivia.

The bodies of Brazilians on the plane have been identified and are being embalmed and prepared for transport by military aircraft back to Brazil, Chapecoense soccer club Communications Director Andrei Copetti told reporters.

He said the coffins will arrive in Chapeco as soon as midday Friday and be taken directly to the club's stadium for a collective wake that Brazilian President Michel Temer is expected to attend.

Since there was no fire on board, bodies are being identified by fingerprints, Julio Bitelli, Brazil's ambassador to Colombia, told Reuters.

(Writing by Helen Murphy in Bogota; Additional reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb in Medellin, Anthony Boadle in Brasilia and Brad Haynes in Chapeco, Brazil; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)


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