Brazil, soccer world rocked by team plane crash; 71 dead

Colombian authorities say 76 people including members of a Brazilian soccer team were killed in a plane crash Monday night in northwestern Colombia. There were five survivors.

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 71 of the 81 people aboard, authorities said.

Officials downgraded the death toll from an earlier reported number of 75, according to ABC News, NBC News and other news organizations.

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.

Twenty of the dead were journalists, and only one journalist survived, the Associated Press reported.

"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."

Photos: Plane carrying Brazilian soccer team to Colombia crashes, 75 dead

"On behalf of the United States, we extend our deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of all those who died in today's tragic crash of LaMia flight 2933 near Medellin, Colombia," NSC spokesman Ned Price said in the statement. "Our thoughts and prayers go out to the surviving players and staff of Brazil's Chapecoense soccer team as well as to all of the others touched by this tragedy. The American people stand with the people of Brazil and Colombia in this difficult moment."

Colombia's civil aviation agency said early in the investigation that 76 people had died, but later put the number of deaths at 75 - before officials lowered it to 71. Photos from the scene showed rescue workers picking through the shattered jet, carrying bodies away from the large swath of debris on the muddy hillside.

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."

The plane took off from Bolivia and was flying over the town of La Union at around 10 p.m. when the crew declared an emergency, according to a statement from the José María Córdova International Airport in Rionegro, Colombia. The plane crashed moments later in a mountainous area in the Antioquian municipality, about 22 miles from the airport, which serves the city of Medellin.

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 recovered from the scene. Colombia aviation officials said the plane experienced electrical problems, but the Associated Press said investigators were also looking into an account from one survivor that the plane ran out of fuel.

“We can’t rule out anything,” LaMia Airlines president Gustavo Vargas told AP.

Chapecoense defender Alan Ruschel, 27, was in a stable condition after being pulled from the plane's wreckage, said Alfredo Bocanegra, head of Colombia's civil aviation agency. He said two other players, Jakson Follman and Helio Zampier, journalist Rafael Valmorbida, flight attendant Ximena Suarez and crew member Erwin Tumiri also survived and were taken to nearby hospitals.

The club also announced one of its goalkeepers, Danilo, initially survived the crash but later died.

The South American soccer federation canceled games until further notice and said its president, Alejandro Dominguez, was traveling to Medellin.

Gianni Infantino, president of FIFA, the global overseer of the sport known as football around the world, expressed shock and sadness.

"This is a very, very sad day for football," Infantino said. "At this difficult time our thoughts are with the victims, their families and friends. FIFA would like to extend its most heartfelt condolences to the fans of Chapecoense, the football community and media organizations concerned in Brazil."

Medellin Mayor Federico Gutierrez expressed sorrow on behalf of his city, which had been excited to host Wednesday's now-canceled game.

“It’s a tragedy of huge proportions,” he said.

At home in Chapeco, the city was stunned. Team member Alejandro Martinuccio had stayed in Brazil due to an injury.

"I was saved because I got injured," he told Argentina's La Red radio. "I feel profound sadness. The only thing I can ask is prayers for the companions who were on the flight."

Chapeco resident Andrei Copetti told AP the tragedy was "unbelievable."

“No one understands how a story that was so amazing could suffer such a devastating reversal," he said. "For many people here reality has still not struck.”

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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