BOGOTA, COLOMBIA » A chartered aircraft with 81 people on board, including a Brazilian first division soccer team heading to Colombia for a regional tournament final, crashed on its way to Medellin’s international airport.
Aviation authorities said there are reports of at least six survivors, with a local mayor confirming at least three passengers were found alive. The British Aerospace 146 short-haul plane, operated by a charter airline named LaMia, declared an emergency at 10 p.m. Monday local time (0300 GMT) because of an electrical failure.
“It’s a tragedy of huge proportions,” Medellin Mayor Federico Gutierrez told Blu Radio.
The aircraft, which had departed from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, was transporting the first division Chapecoense soccer team from southern Brazil. The team was scheduled to play Wednesday in the first of a two-game Copa Sudamericana final against Atletico Nacional of Medellin.
“May God accompany our athletes, officials, journalists and other guests traveling with our delegation,” the club said in a brief statement on its Facebook page.
South America’s soccer federation extended its condolences to the entire Chapecoense community and said its president, Luis Dominguez, was on his way to Medellin. All soccer activities were suspended until further notice, the organization said in a statement.
Elkin Ospina, mayor of La Ceja, near where the crash took place, said the priority is searching for survivors and scores of rescuers working through the night had been heartened after pulling three passengers alive from the wreckage.
Authorities and rescuers were immediately activated but an air force helicopter had to turn back because of low visibility. Heavy rainfall is complicating the nighttime search and authorities urged journalists to stay off the roads to facilitate the entry of ambulances and rescuers.
Images broadcast on local television showed three male passengers arriving to a local hospital in ambulances on stretchers and covered in blankets connected to an IV. All were apparently alive and one of them was reportedly a Chapecoense defender named Alan Ruschel.
The plane was carrying 72 passengers and nine crew members, aviation authorities said in a statement. Local radio said the same aircraft transported Argentina’s national squad for a match earlier this month in Brazil, and previously had transported Venezuela’s national team.
A video published on the team’s Facebook page showed the team readying for the flight earlier today in Sao Paulo’s Guarulhos international airport.
The team, from the small city of Chapeco, was in the middle of a fairy tale season. It joined Brazil’s first division in 2014 for the first time since the 1970s and made it last week to the Copa Sudamericana finals — the equivalent of the UEFA Europa League tournament — after defeating Argentina’s San Lorenzo squad.