Brazil and the entire soccer world were in mourning Tuesday after a chartered plane carrying a first-division Brazilian soccer team to a historic game slammed into a Colombian hillside, killing 75 of the 81 people aboard, authorities said.
The 72 passengers included members of Chapecoense, a Brazilian soccer team that rose from relative obscurity to play in one of South America’s most prestigious tournaments. The team had been scheduled to play in the Copa Sudamerica finals against Atletico Nacional on Wednesday in Medellin.
“May God accompany our athletes, officials, journalists and other guests traveling with our delegation,” the club said in a statement after the crash Monday night. Juan Carlos de la Cuesta, president of Atletico Nacional, expressed solidarity with Chapecoense and requested the team be declared tournament champion.
Chapecoense represents Chapeco, a southern city of about 200,000 more than 800 miles southwest of Rio de Janeiro. The climb to celebrity status was a Cinderella story that drew headlines across the nation. Less than a decade ago Chapecoense was mired in the nation’s “D” league, essentially low minor leagues.
In recent years it steadily rose through the ranks, reaching the top division of Brazilian soccer in 2014. Authorities said more than 20 journalists joined the team on the flight in anticipation of Wednesday’s game.
“The pain is terrible. Just as we had made it, I will not say to the top, but to have national prominence, a tragedy like this happens,” club vice-president Ivan Tozzo told Globo SportTV. “It is very difficult, a very great tragedy.”
Colombia’s civil aviation agency said early in the investigation that 76 people had died, but later put the number of deaths at 75. Photos from the scene showed rescue workers picking through the shattered jet , carrying bodies away from the swath of debris on the muddy hillside.
It was not immediately clear what caused the short-haul, British Aerospace 146 to crash, but heavy rains and thunderstorms hit Colombia around the time of the tragedy. Officials said the plane’s data and voice recorders — black boxes — were recoverded from the scene.
The tragedy stunned the soccer-mad nation of Brazil. President Michel Temer declared three days of national mourning and mobilized the foreign affairs and defense ministries to assist families of the victims. Brazil’s embassy in Bogota was reaching out to families, and planes were made available to transport them to Colombia and to aid in the search and rescue effort.
“The government will do everything possible to ease the pain of the family and friends of sport and national journalism,” Temer said.
In the United States, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted: #Chapecoense Cinderella dream ended tragically. Our prayers are with all those killed in heartbreaking plane crash & their loved ones.”