30 Nov 2016

Crashed plane's black boxes found

6:42 pm on 30 November 2016

Investigators have found the black boxes from a chartered plane that crashed in Colombia, killing most of the members of a top Brazilian football team along with officials and journalists.

At least 71 people were killed on Monday night (Tuesday NZT) when the plane slammed into a mountain during its approach to the city of Medellin.

People pay tribute to the players of Brazilian team Chapecoense Real killed in a plane crash in the Colombian mountains on 29 November (NZT).

People pay tribute to the members of Brazilian team Chapecoense Real who were killed, alongisde officials and journalists, in yesterday's plane crash. Photo: AFP

The team was flying to face Atletico Nacional for the Copa Sudamericana, South America's second most important club competition.

It is Colombia's worst air disaster in two decades, and there are only six survivors.

The global football community is reeling from the disaster, with tributes being paid by major figures from Pele to Lionel Messi.

The British Aerospace 146 charter plane, en route from Bolivia where the team had a stopover, went down about 10.15pm on Monday (4.15pm Tuesday NZT) with 68 passengers and a crew of nine on board.

The aircraft had reported electrical problems and declared an emergency minutes earlier as it neared its destination, airport officials said.

Bolivian civil aviation authority Dirección General de Aeronáutica Civil said the plane had departed under perfect conditions.

"The crew had their licenses in order, everything was in order for the flight," it said.

At the crash scene, in wooded highlands outside Medellin, dozens of bodies were laid out and covered with sheets around the wreckage.

The tail end of the plane virtually disintegrated in the crash. Rain hampered dozens of rescuers as they combed the muddy and forested area.

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Rescuers search the wreckage of the charter plane, which crashed in the wooded highlands outside Medellin. Photo: AFP

"We felt a loud, strong thud," said German Lopez, 44, who grows flowers on the mountain range and could see the white wreckage from his kitchen.

"We ran to search for survivors. I saw someone die on a stretcher but helped save someone who was unconscious. I started to cry. I didn't want my home known for this."

In addition to players, coaches and staff, 21 journalists were on board to cover the match, Brazilian news organisations said.

The nine crew members, including the pilots, were Bolivian.

Three survivors in intensive care

Colombia's civil aviation authority identified the six survivors as Brazilian players Alan Ruschel, Jackson Follmann and Helio Neto; Brazilian journalist Rafael Valmorbida; Bolivian flight attendant Ximena Suarez; and Bolivian flight technician Erwin Tumiri.

Mr Neto and Mr Valmorbida were in "very delicate but stable" condition in intensive care, Dr Guillermo Molina, the head of one clinic treating them, said. Mr Neto suffered trauma to his head, thorax and lungs, as well as open wounds to his knees.

Mr Ruschel also was in intensive care but in a stable condition, Dr Ana Maria Gonzalez, the director of another clinic also attending them, said.

The two members of the flight staff were out of danger and under observation, she said.

Mr Follmann had his right leg amputated, Colombian broadcaster RCN reported, citing Chapecoense spokesman Gelson Dalla Costa.

Two flight recorders - commonly known as black boxes - were recovered from the crash site, Colombia's government said.

'They were the hope of our city'

It was the first time Chapecoense, a small club from the southern town of Chapeco which has had a fairy-tale rise since 2009, had reached the final of a major South American club competition.

Matches were cancelled around South America, and Brazil declared three days of mourning. Atletico Nacional asked for Chapecoense to be awarded the trophy in honor of those who died.

"They were the hope of our city," said Jean Panegalli, 17, a student in Chapeco, where fans were disconsolate. "They played for love of the shirt and not for money. They played with the commitment that only those who have lived here know."

The charter plane was produced by a company that is now part of the UK's BAE Systems.

The team took a regular flight to Santa Cruz in Bolivia and went from there to Medellin on the plane, run by Bolivia-based LAMIA - a company with roots in Venezuela.

Victims' bodies recovered

By early afternoon, rescuers had recovered 69 bodies, which were to be flown out by helicopter for identification and then repatriation.

Chapeco's mayor, Brazilian aviation disaster experts, police and health officials, and football federation leaders were on their way to Medellin on a Brazilian Air Force plane, said a spokesman for Brazil's president.

Representatives of Globo TV and Fox Sports TV, the media with the most journalists on board, were also on the air force plane to help identify their colleagues, he added. Two military planes would follow at a later date to fly the bodies home.

The crash evoked memories of a series of football air disasters in the 20th century, including the Munich crash in 1958 that killed 23 people, among them eight Manchester United players, journalists and travelling officials.

It was Colombia's worst air accident since more than 160 people died on an American Airlines plane in 1995 in a mountainous area near Cali.

- Reuters