Soccer crash survivors treated in Colombia as investigation begins
By Julia Symmes Cobb and Brad Haynes
LA UNION, Colombia/CHAPECO, Brazil (Reuters) - Doctors treated survivors of an air crash in Colombia that killed 71 people and wiped out Brazil's Chapecoense soccer team en route to a cup final in Colombia as an investigation got underway on Wednesday.
Only six people - three players, a journalist and two crew members - survived the crash on Monday night when Chapecoense's charter plane, a BAe 146 made by BAE Systems Plc, hit a mountain en route to their Copa Sudamericana showdown in Medellin.
All were being treated at local hospitals.
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.
Investigators from Brazil flew to join Colombian counterparts checking two black boxes from the crash site on a muddy hillside in wooded highlands near the town of La Union.
Colombia's El Tiempo newspaper cited crews from planes approaching Medellin airport on Monday night as saying the pilot of Chapecoense's flight shouted over the radio that he was running out of fuel and needed to make an emergency landing.
Landing priority was given to a plane from airline VivaColombia, which had already reported instrument problems, the paper said.
Shortly afterward the pilot of the Chapecoense plane told the control tower he was experiencing electrical difficulties before the radio went silent, the paper quoted the sources as saying.
Another survivor, Bolivian flight technician Erwin Tumiri, said he survived because he strictly followed safety instructions.
"Many passengers got up from their seats and started yelling. I put the bag between my legs and went into the fetal position as recommended," he told Colombia's Radio Caracol.
Bolivian stewardess 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.
Doctors said that Suarez and Tumiri were shaken and bruised but not in critical condition, while journalist Rafael Valmorbida was in intensive care for multiple rib fractures that partly collapsed a lung.
'CRY A LOT'
Investigators returned to the wreckage on Wednesday as soldiers guarded the hillside crash site overnight.
Bolivia, where the charter company LAMIA was based, and the United Kingdom also sent experts to help the probe. LAMIA operated the plane that crashed.
Locals are accustomed to planes flying overhead at all hours, but many were disturbed by the massive crash.
"It came over my house, but there was no noise, the engine must have gone," said Nancy Munoz, 35, who grows strawberries in the area.
By nightfall on Tuesday, rescuers had recovered most of the bodies which were to be repatriated to Brazil and Bolivia, the countries from where the nine-person crew came.
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, where schools cancelled classes and businesses shut, black and green ribbons were draped on fences, balconies and restaurant tables.
“It's a miracle,” Flávio 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. Like family,” said Chapecoense fan Caua Regis.
Almost all of the 67 bodies recovered from the crash have been identified, according to a member of the Chapecoense board. He said medical experts from Brazil were expected to conclude their work by Wednesday night.
The club is planning an open wake at their stadium by Saturday, the city’s planning secretary Nemesio da Silva told journalists.
Chapecoense's opponents, Atletico Nacional of Medellin, asked that the tournament cup be awarded to the Brazilians in honor of the dead.
(Writing by Helen Murphy and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Jeffrey Benkoe)