RIO DE JANEIRO — A charter plane carrying 81 people, including players from a rising Brazilian soccer team headed for a championship match, slammed into a mountainside late Monday near Medellín’s airport in Colombia. At least six passengers survived and the rest were killed, officials said as rescue teams struggled to reach the crash site Tuesday amid driving rain.
The final death toll remained unclear, however. Colombia’s civil aviation authority initially reported that six people were pulled alive from the wreckage, but one later died. A follow-up statement noted a total of six survivors, including at least three members of the Chapecoense soccer team, two airline crew and a journalist. The reason for the revision was not immediately known.
Medellín’s mayor, Federico Gutierrez, called it “a tragedy of huge proportions.”
Alfredo Bocanegra, the head of Colombia’s aviation authority, told reporters that search efforts continued despite heavy rain. “It is worth it to keep looking,” Bocanegra said. “One single life is worth it.”
The aircraft was carrying members of the Chapecoense Real soccer team, based in southern Brazil, for the finals of the Copa Sudamericana against Atletico Nacional of Medellín. The first match of a home-away series was scheduled for Wednesday.
According to Colombia’s civil aviation agency, Aerocivil, there were 72 passengers and nine crew members aboard the flight from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where the team stopped over. Passengers included 22 soccer players and 22 journalists, according to the aviation authority and local media reports.
Brazilian President Michel Temer declared three days of official mourning and promised government help for the families of victims.
“At this sad time that the tragedy falls on dozens of Brazilian families, I express my solidarity. We are putting all the means to help families and all the possible assistance,” he said in a statement.
Brazilian media showed photographs of fans gathering near the team’s ground in Chapeco, about 800 miles south of Rio de Janeiro. In an interview with TV Globo news at the ground, Ivan Tozzo, the team’s vice president, wiped away tears.
“It is very sad the news we received this morning. We never expected it,” he said, speaking from the team’s dressing room. “A team getting international attention, and a tragedy like this happens, it is very difficult and a very big sadness, but we will put faith in God.”
The president of the team’s board, Plínio de Nes Filho, also spoke to Globo news. “Yesterday morning, I said goodbye to them; they said they were going in search of a dream to turn this dream into a reality for us,” he said. “The dream ended.”
As news of the tragedy reverberated around soccer-mad Brazil, the hashtag #ForçaChape (strength Chape) began trending.
The aviation authority confirmed on its Facebook page Tuesday morning the names of the passengers who initially survived the crash. Several members of the soccer team — including Alan Luciano Ruschel and goalkeepers Jakson Ragnar Follmann and Marcos Danilo Padilha — were among those rescued from the crash site, but Danilo Padilha later died, the team wrote on its Facebook page, citing the Red Cross.
Two crew members — Ximena Suárez and Erwin Tumiri — were also rescued, along with Brazilian journalist Rafael Henzel.
Among the first to be rescued was Ruschel, 27, who was transported to a hospital in the town of La Ceja, Blu Radio reported. He arrived in a frantic state but with no major wounds, asking about his family and requesting that medical staff take care of his wedding ring, the radio station reported. Henzel, the journalist, was in stable condition, the radio station reported, citing a local fire rescue official.
The aircraft, a British Aerospace short-haul plane operated by a Bolivian charter company, went down near the town of La Unión, according to Colombian officials, about 53 miles from the Medellín airport. Medellín’s mayor told Colombian radio the plane crashed in a mountainous region.
The Associated Press reported that the plane’s pilot declared an emergency at about 10 p.m. Monday local time due to an electrical failure.
“It seemed the plane had no fuel,” said Elkin Ospina, the mayor of nearby La Ceja, according to an AFP report quoted on the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper site.
A vice president of the Brazilian Soccer Association, Delfim Peixoto, was on board, the association said, according to Folha.
The club posted a brief statement on its Facebook page: “May God accompany our athletes, officials, journalists and other guests traveling with our delegation.” It said it would have no further comment until it had more details on the crash.
Colombia’s Inforiente site tweeted photos of the crash site:
On Monday, Chapecoense’s Facebook page had carried a live video broadcast as the team checked in at Sao Paulo’s Guarulhos international airport for the flight to Colombia. The team members flew from Sao Paulo to Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia and took flight to Medellin in Colombia on a plane operated by Bolivian airline Lamia.
The club was seen as a Cinderella story just two years after breaking into Brazilian soccer’s first division. It defeated Argentine powerhouse San Lorenzo last week to make it into the two-game championship round. On Sunday, it lost to Sao Paulo team Palmeiras in a game that decided the Brazilian championship for the winners.
The team’s ascent from the depths of Brazilian soccer was the talk of the South American football world.
“It is common for Brazilians to say that the country has 12 clubs with actual chances to win the national title at the start of every season,” wrote Plus55 of the Chapeco team this week. “A small club, however, is slowly breaking this logic and has a real shot at becoming 2016’s most successful Brazilian club at the international level.”
The team’s climb was not sudden, however. It started winning lesser championships in 2010, moving up the ranks of Brazilian soccer from the C division to the A division. It started playing with elite Brazilian teams in 2014, the article noted, “and has not been relegated since, another rare feat as novice teams are likely to head back” to the B division “in the blink of an eye.”
Chapecoense played its first international match in the Copa Sudamericana in 2015, and in 2016 managed to eliminate traditional powerhouses to make it to the finals.
As the news sank in, attention turned to the aircraft that crashed. The plane was operated by Bolivian airline Lamia. Brazil’s Civil Aviation Agency, ANAC, said Tuesday morning that it had denied a request by the team to charter the flight direct from Brazil to Colombia from Lamia, based on the Brazilian Aviation Code and the Chicago Convention.
“The agreement with Bolivia, the originating country of the Lamia airline, does not permit this,” a spokesman said, adding that one reason for this was commercial — countries need a bilateral agreement.
The civil aviation authority “informed the applicant for the flight that the transport could be done by a Brazilian or a Colombian airline, according to the service contractor’s choice, in accordance with international agreements in force,” the agency said in a statement on its website.
The Spanish news site Sport reported that the same plane was used by the Argentine national team three weeks ago when the team played Brazil in a World Cup elimination round. The site published a photo of Argentina and Barcelona star Lionel Messi, one of the world’s most famous players, on the plane.
The Confederación Sudamericana has suspended all sporting activities, the Telemedellín channel reported. Spanish soccer club FC Barcelona tweeted a photo of its team taking a moment of silence before training in honor of the victims of the plane crash.
Schmidt and Murphy reported from Washington