RIO DE JANEIRO — It was the culmination of an astonishing climb to the top of South America’s soccer world: a modest club from Brazil heading to the finals of a continent-wide tournament. Then came a distress call from the cockpit of the plane carrying the team to Colombia.
Moments later, radar contact was lost late Monday with the charter jet carrying 81 people, including players and coaches from Brazil’s Chapecoense soccer club. The wreckage was found wedged in the folds of a muddy and rain-soaked hillside about 50 miles from Medellín – with just six survivors answering the calls of rescuers.
One by one on Tuesday, authorities in white coveralls collected the bodies – scattered over the low brush or inside the splintered cabin – and carried them down the mountain on stretchers.
Among the dead: a player who recently learned he was to be a father, a goalie beloved for his acrobatic saves, and coaches who help bring Chapecoense to the biggest moment in its 33-year history. Survivors included at least three Chapecoense players, two airline crew members and a journalist, Colombia’s civil aviation agency said.
The tragedy threw soccer-mad Brazil into collective grief and an official three-day mourning period. All matches in South America were canceled for a week in a show of solidarity. Across the globe, the sport paid homage: a moment of silence by Spain’s FC Barcelona and Real Madrid clubs before practice, and condolences from current and former superstars including Argentina’s Diego Maradona.
“A tragedy of huge proportions,” said Medellín’s mayor, Federico Gutierrez.
Outside Chapecoense’s home stadium in Chapeco, about 800 miles south of Rio de Janeiro, tearful backers gathered in a spontaneous vigil. And, in a mournful twist of the online age, team websites and players’ Twitter feeds were filled with images of joyful Chapecoense players in their last hours as they began the trip to Colombia – including a poignant last video by defender Felipe Machado.
The team’s official website changed its logo from green to black.
“This is a very sad day for soccer,” wrote Gianni Infantino, president of world’s soccer’s governing body FIFA.
Meanwhile, aviation experts tried to piece together the cause of the disaster.
Authorities initially suspected a fuel shortage – with the British Aerospace 146 aircraft near the limit of its range – but investigators increasingly began to study a possible electrical failure on board, said an official for the Colombian aviation agency. The official spoke on condition of anonymity under normal rules to brief reporters.
A team of British aviation specialists headed to Colombia to join the probe, which will include analysis of flight data recorders recovered from the crash site.
The plane, operated by the charter company LaMia Airlines, left from Santa Cruz de la Sierra, a city in southern Bolivia, where the team had arrived on a commercial flight. The company was originally based in the Venezuelan city of Merida, but said it shifted operations to Colombia, the Associated Press reported.
The same plane had carried Argentina’s national team earlier this month, Argentine state-run media reported. British Aerospace, now known as BAE Systems, said the 146 model aircraft began service in 1981 and that about 220 are currently in use.
“At this sad time that the tragedy falls on dozens of Brazilian families, I express my solidarity,” Brazilian President Michel Temer said in a statement. “We are putting all the means to help families and all the possible assistance.” Temer declared three days of official mourning and promised government help for the families of victims.
Chapecoense had been scheduled to play in the finals of the Copa Sudamericana against Atlético Nacional of Medellín. The first match of a home-away series – which would decide the second-most coveted soccer crown in South America – was set for Wednesday.
In an interview with TV Globo news at Chapecoense’s home stadium, 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, said he spoke to team members just before they left Brazil. “They said they were going in search of a dream to turn this dream into a reality for us,” he said, according to the news site O Globo. “The dream ended.”
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, Hélio Hermito Zampier Neto and Jakson Ragnar Follmann – were among those rescued from the crash site.
Goaltender Marcos Danilo Padilha also was found alive, but he later died while receiving medical treatment, the team said.
Two crew members – Ximena Suárez and Erwin Tumiri – were also rescued, along with Brazilian journalist Rafael Henzel.
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.
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.
The team’s ascent from the depths of Brazilian soccer was the talk of the South American sporting 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.”
Some players stayed behind because of injuries. A forgotten passport kept the son of the team’s coach, Caio Júnior, off the flight that claimed the life of his father.
“We are strong. We will get through this,” the son Matheus Saroli posted his Facebook account, according to soccer site Lance.
World soccer has been hit by aviation tragedies before.
In 1958, the core of the Manchester United soccer team was among those killed in the crash of a British European Airways plane attempting to take off from Munich-Riem Airport. The team, nicknamed the “Busby Babes,” was returning from a European Cup match in Belgrade and, at the time, was widely hailed as one of the powerhouses in international soccer.
Schmidt and Murphy reported from Washington.