Colombia plane crash: 100,000 mourners gather at Chapecoense stadium as victims returned to Brazil

City in mourning after 71 people killed in plane crash on way to historic football match

Fans cry while paying tribute to the players of Brazilian team Chapecoense Real at the club's Arena Conda stadium in Brazil on 3 December
Fans cry while paying tribute to the players of Brazilian team Chapecoense Real at the club's Arena Conda stadium in Brazil on 3 December

More than 100,000 fans gathered at the Chapecoense football club’s stadium on Saturday as bodies of the victims of an air disaster that almost wiped out the team were returned home.

Residents of the Brazilian city of Chapeco draped their homes and businesses in the team’s signature green and black as a mark of respect for the 71 people killed when the plane they were travelling on crashed on Monday night.

The team had been flying with 21 journalists to the Colombian city of Medellin to play the biggest match in their history – the final of the Copa Sudamericana.

But just miles from the airport the pilot of the chartered BAe 146 plane radioed air controllers to say he was running out of fuel, before the plane’s electrics failed and it smashed into a hillside in the Andes.

Only six people survived, including just three members of the Chapecoense side. Fans have been keeping vigil at its stadium, where more than 20,000 people joined family and friends of the victims on Wednesday night to pay tribute to those killed.

A mass was held in the centre of the pitch as fans sang club anthems and wept while holding candles in the stands.

Soldiers carry coffins of Chapecoense Real footballers who were killed in a plane crash in Colombia into their home stadium in Brazil on 3 December

On Saturday, the victims' bodies were brought home on a Colombian air force transport plane, with their coffins unloaded in front of mourners at the city's airport. Soldiers formed a guard of honour at a ceremony led by by Michel Temer, the Brazilian President, who bestowed posthumous honours on the dead.

The 50 coffins were then transported to the club's stadium, where 20,000 people were crammed into the stands and many times that number outside to watch them placed beneath tents on the pitch.

The tops of a row of tents formed a banner emblazoned with words from the club’s anthem. “In happiness and in the most difficult hours,” it said, “you are always a winner.”

“We’re still waiting for our heroes to return,” 25-year-old fan Sidnei de Oliveira Dias told Reuters. “We still can’t believe it. Though now we know they’re never coming back.”

In response to outpourings of support from soccer fans and clubs around the globe, Chapecoense has 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 reads, followed by the words “thank you” in more than a dozen languages.

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.

The Bolivian President, Evo Morales, pledged to take “drastic measures” to determine what caused the crash. The country has suspended airline LaMia’s operating licence and replaced the national aviation authority’s management.

Brazilian media, citing an internal document, reported that an official at Bolivia’s aviation agency had urged the airline to come up with an alternative route after calculating that the journey of four hours and 22 minutes was the same length as the plane’s maximum flight range.

Gustavo Vargas, LaMia’s CEO, said the plane had been correctly inspected before departure and claimed it was the pilot's responsibility to decide whether to stop to refuel.

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