EDITED BY KALAHAN DENG
Brazil’s president on Saturday bestowed honours on the victims of an air crash as Air Force troops unloaded 50 coffins flown in overnight from Colombia, site of the disaster this week that killed 71 people and wiped out a rural football team.
The Brazilian town of Chapeco, its streets wet with rain and buildings draped in the green of its devastated club, turned out to receive the bodies and attend a wake at a local stadium for members of the team, which ascended from minor leagues in recent years to reach the championship of a South American tournament.
Monday’s disaster shocked football fans across the world 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 football 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 overnight at Chapecoense’s stadium, where the wake will be held after the caskets are transported from a nearby airfield.
By dawn fans were lined up around the block and began streaming into the stadium, draped with banners and the team’s green and white, when doors opened shortly thereafter.
An impromptu shrine swelled with fresh flowers and handmade posters and fans from other parts of Brazil joined the locals, waving flags of other teams in solidarity. Some supporters, even as organizers piped somber classical music over loudspeakers, sang raucous soccer chants.
Fans said the wake would provide closure for a town whose excitement at Wednesday night’s cup final had turned to anguish.
“I will only really believe it when we see the coffins and the families,” said Pamela Lopes, 29, who arrived for the vigil at 10 pm local time Friday night. “At first there was commotion, but now a great sadness has set in.”
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.
Michel Temer, Brazil’s president, presided over a brief ceremony at the airport, where he posthumously decorated the victims and offered condolences to their families. It was unclear whether Mr Temer, wary of possible political protests, would attend the wake.
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.