LA UNION, COLOMBIA >> Colombia’s worst air crash in two decades snuffed out a storybook run by a Brazilian soccer team, and authorities are digging in trying to figure out why a chartered jetliner crashed in the Andes, killing all but six of the 77 people aboard.
The country’s aviation agency said today that the British Aerospace 146’s cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder had been found among the wreckage strewn over a mountainside and were already being studied by experts.
Initially, Colombian officials said the short-haul jet suffered an electrical failure, but there was also heavy rain when the crew declared an emergency and the plane disappeared from radar just before 10 p.m. Monday.
Authorities also said they were not ruling out the possibility the aircraft ran out of fuel minutes before it was to land at Jose Maria Cordova airport outside Medellin, a report given to rescuers by a surviving flight attendant. Officials said they hoped to interview her Wednesday.
Emotional pain resonated across the region over the loss of much of the Chapecoense soccer team from southern Brazil, which just two years after working its way into Brazil’s top league for the first time in decades had fought its way into the championship of one of South America’s most prestigious tournaments.
The aircraft, which departed from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, was carrying the team to Wednesday’s first game in the two-game Copa Sudamericana final against Atletico Nacional of Medellin. Twenty-one Brazilian journalists were traveling with the team.
South America’s soccer federation canceled all scheduled matches in a show of solidarity, while the Real Madrid and Barcelona clubs interrupted their training sessions for a minute of silence. Brazil’s top teams offered to lend players to the small club for next season as it rebuilds, saying: “It is the minimum gesture of solidarity that is within our reach.”
In a moving gesture, Atletico Nacional asked that the championship title be given to Chapecoense, whose upstart run in the tournament electrified soccer-crazed Brazil.
Three players were among the survivors. Alan Ruschel was reported in the most serious condition, facing surgery for a spinal fracture. Teammates Helio Zampier and Jakson Follmann also suffered multiple trauma injuries, and doctors had to amputate Follmann’s right leg.
A journalist also underwent surgery and two Bolivian crew members were in stable condition, hospital officials said.
The aircraft is owned by LaMia, a charter company that started in Venezuela but later relocated to Bolivia, where it was certified to operate last January. Despite apparently limited experience, the airline has a close relationship with several premier South American soccer squads.
Earlier this month, the plane involved in the crash transported Barcelona forward Lionel Messi and Argentina’s national team from Brazil following a World Cup qualifying match. The airliner also appeared to have transported the national squads of Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela in the last three months, according to a log of recent activity provided by Flightradar24.com.
Before being taken offline, LaMia’s website said it operated three 146 Avro short-haul jets made by British Aerospace, with a maximum range of around 2,965 kilometers (1,600 nautical miles) — about the distance between Santa Cruz and Medellin.
Hans Weber, a longtime adviser to U.S. aviation authorities, said the aircraft’s range deserves careful investigation. He noted that air distance between cities is usually measured by the shortest route but planes rarely fly in a straight line, with pilots steering around turbulence or changing course for other reasons.
Given the model of the plane and the fact that it was flying close to capacity, “I would be concerned that the pilots may have been cutting it too close,” Weber said.
A spokesman for Bolivia’s civil aviation agency, Cesar Torrico, said the plane was inspected before departing for Colombia and no problems were reported.
Gustavo Vargas, a retired Bolivian air force general who is president of the airline, said: “We can’t rule out anything. The investigation is ongoing and we’re going to await the results.”
Moments before the plane took off, the team’s coaching staff gave an interview to a Bolivian television station in which they praised the airline, saying it brought them good fortune when it flew them to Colombia last month for the championship’s quarterfinals, which they won.
“Now we’re going to do this new trip and we hope they bring us good luck like they did the first time,” athletic director Mauro Stumpf told Gigavision TV.
The team, from the small Brazilian city of Chapeco, was having a breakout season. It advanced to the Copa Sudamericana finals after defeating some of the region’s top teams, including Argentina’s San Lorenzo and Independiente.
The Chapecoense club is so modest that tournament organizers ruled its 22,000-seat stadium was too small to host the concluding match of the two-game final and moved it to a stadium 300 miles (480 kilometers) to the city of Curitiba. Some fans in soccer-mad Brazil were so enchanted with its magical run that they started a campaign online to move the final match to Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Maracana stadium, where the 2014 World Cup final was played.
“This morning I said goodbye to them and they told me they were going after the dream, turning that dream into reality,” Chapecoense board member Plinio De Nes told Brazil’s TV Globo. “The dream was over early this morning.”
Associated Press writer Fernando Vergara reported this story in La Union, Colombia, and AP writer Joshua Goodman reported from Bogota.