CHAPECO, Brazil, Dec 3 (Reuters) - The Brazilian town of Chapeco, its buildings draped in the green colors of its devastated soccer club, prepared on Saturday to receive the bodies of victims of an air disaster in Colombia that killed 71 people and wiped out the team.
The crash on Monday night shocked soccer fans the world over and plunged Brazil, South America’s biggest nation, into mourning. The BAe146 regional airliner operated by Bolivian charter company LAMIA had radioed that it was running out of fuel before smashing into a hillside outside the Colombian city of Medellin.
Only six people survived, including just three members of the soccer side Chapecoense en route to the Copa Sudamericana final, the biggest game in its history.
Reports in Brazilian media that the plane, which circled outside Medellin for 16 minutes while another aircraft made an emergency landing, had barely enough fuel for the flight from Bolivia have outraged relatives of the victims.
Bolivian President Evo Morales pledged to take “drastic measures” to determine what caused the crash. Bolivia has suspended LAMIA’s operating license and replaced the national aviation authority’s management.
In Chapeco, a small agricultural town in southern Brazil, dozens of fans kept vigil at Chapecoense’s stadium, where an impromptu shrine swelled with fresh flowers and handmade posters. Green and black cloth was draped from fences, store fronts and construction sites.
Sidnei de Oliveira Dias, a 25-year-old fan, said an open air wake due to be held on Saturday at the stadium would provide a moment of closure for a town whose excitement at Wednesday night’s cup final had turned to anguish.
Some 100,000 fans, about half the city’s population, were expected to attend, as was Gianni Infantino, president of world soccer governing body FIFA. Temporary structures in the stadium will shelter the coffins of players, staff and journalists during the wake.
“We’re still waiting for our heroes to return,” Dias said. “We still can’t believe it. Though now we know they’re never coming back.”
The coffins were scheduled to arrive from Colombia aboard an Air Force transport plane at around 7:00 a.m. (0900 GMT) on Saturday.
Brazilian President Michel Temer will preside over a brief ceremony at the airport, where he was due to posthumously decorate the victims and offer condolences to their families.
However, he will not attend the wake in the stadium, amid concerns over possible political protests, his advisers said.
In response to outpourings of support from soccer fans and clubs around the globe, Chapecoense hung a huge black banner from the outer wall of its stadium.
“We looked for one word to thank all the kindness and we found many,” it read, followed by the words “thank you” in more than a dozen languages.
Workers laid out giant banners on the field, decorated with white flowers, carrying the logos of Chapecoense and Atlético Nacional, the Colombian team that held a memorial ceremony on Wednesday instead of hosting the Cup final.
Cleusa Eichner, 52, said she would come to the stadium on Saturday - as she had done so many times for games - but was wary about seeing the players caskets.
“I can still see those players entering with their kids in their arms. I’d rather keep that image in my head, hold on to that happiness, than replace it with nothing.”
Brazilian media, citing an internal document, reported that an official at Bolivia’s aviation agency raised concerns about LAMIA’s flight plan.
The official urged the airline to come up with an alternative route because the journey of 4 hours and 22 minutes was the same length as the plane’s maximum flight range.
A Colombian civil aviation document seen by Reuters confirmed the flight time was set to be 4 hours and 22 minutes.
LAMIA Chief Executive Officer Gustavo Vargas on Wednesday said the plane had been correctly inspected before departure and should have had enough fuel for about 4-1/2 hours. He said it was the pilot’s responsibility to decide whether to stop to refuel.
The pilot’s father-in-law, Roger Pinto Molina, who lives in Brazil, apologized to the Brazilian people in an interview with GloboNews.
“We want to say to millions of Brazilians, especially the families, sons, parents and brothers in Chapeco that we are very sorry,” Molina said. (Editing by Leslie Adler)