MEDELLIN, Colombia: The bodies of the 71 victims killed in a plane crash in Colombia that wiped out a Brazilian football team began arriving home Friday, as mourners prepared a massive funeral.
The remains of the first victim, Paraguayan crew member Gustavo Encina, were handed over to his family early Friday in a coffin draped in his country’s flag.
The other victims — 64 Brazilians, five Bolivians and a Venezuelan — will be flown home on a series of flights throughout the day.
“What we want now more than anything else is to go home, to take our friends and brothers home. The wait is the worst,” said Roberto Di Marche, a cousin of football team Chapecoense Real’s late director Nilson Folle Junior.
In the club’s hometown, the southern Brazilian city of Chapeco, more than 100,000 people — about half the city’s population — are expected to attend a memorial service Saturday in honour of the team, whose fairytale season was tragically cut short by the Monday night crash.
FIFA chief Gianni Infantino cancelled a trip to Australia to attend the funeral at the team’s stadium.
Officials said Brazilian President Michel Temer would likely be there as well.
Authorities are still investigating what caused the charter flight to smash into the mountains outside Medellin, where Chapecoense was due to play the biggest match in its history — the finals of the Copa Sudamericana, South America’s second-largest cup tournament.
A harrowing recording has emerged of the panicked pilot asking the control tower for priority to land because he was out of fuel.
Colombia’s civil aviation safety chief, Freddy Bonilla, said the plane disregarded international rules on fuel reserves.
Bolivia shut down the charter company, LAMIA, on Thursday, and ordered an investigation into its operations.
The company’s director general, Gustavo Vargas, was a long-time pilot for Bolivian President Evo Morales.
Morales said Friday he backed the investigation and would not interfere.
Bolivia has also suspended the executive staff of its civil aviation authority and the airport’s administrator for the duration of the probe.
Investigators are examining pilot error and air traffic control problems as possible factors in the crash.
The air traffic controller on duty that night in Medellin said she had been receiving threats, blaming people “ignorant” of safety regulations.
“I can say with absolute certainty that for my part, I did everything humanly possible and technically required to keep those (people) alive,” she said in a statement.
The disaster killed most of Chapecoense’s squad and 20 journalists travelling with them to cover the match.
LAMIA, which specializes in flying Latin American football teams, had ferried local clubs and national sides around the region, including superstar Lionel Messi.
Haunting crash scene
Six people miraculously survived the crash.
All remained hospitalized Friday.
“I’m in shock,” said flight attendant Ximena Suarez Otterburg, who was found injured but conscious after the crash.
“God can’t explain the pain I feel,” she wrote on Facebook.
Other survivors were in various stages of recovery.
Chapecoense defender Alan Ruschel was in intensive care after back surgery, while goalkeeper Jakson Follmann has undergone multiple surgeries including the amputation of his right leg.
A haunting video meanwhile emerged of the moment rescuers found Bolivian crew member Erwin Tumiri.
“Alex! Angel! David! Where’s my crew?” shouted the visibly disoriented man, as rescuers tried to calm him.
Co-pilot Ovar Goytia’s 18-year-old son recalled his final conversation with his father.
“I spoke with my daddy 10 minutes before the flight took off. I only spoke to him to say goodbye and make sure everything was OK. He just said to take care of the home, of my brothers, that I was the man of the house, and that he’d be back,” he told AFP.
Getting the news “was a dagger in my heart,” he said. “As if my world was ending.”
Goytia, who is in flight school to follow in his father’s footsteps, called his dad a “great pilot” and said he was sure he did everything possible to save his passengers’ lives.