RIO NEGRO, Colombia – An honor guard played taps early Friday as members of Colombia’s military loaded five flight crew victims of an air crash that also killed most members of a soccer team onto a cargo plane for the trip back to their native Bolivia.
The five were all Bolivian crew members of the chartered flight that crashed into the Andes mountains on Monday, killing 71 people, including players and coaches from Chapecoense, a small-town Brazilian soccer team that was headed to the Copa Sudamericana finals after a fairy-tale season that had captivated their soccer-crazed nation.
The bodies of a group of 50 Brazilian victims will be repatriated later Friday on three flights to Chapeco, the team’s hometown, where they’ll be received by their loved ones. On Thursday, white sheets printed with the green and white logo of the soccer club were placed over row upon row of caskets at a Medellin funeral home.
The somber farewell come as details emerge pointing to alleged negligence on the part of the Bolivian charter company hired by the team to shuttle the players to Medellin for the finals of the prestigious soccer championship.
Bolivian aviation officials announced they were indefinitely suspending the LaMia airlines after a recording of conversations between a pilot of the doomed flight and air traffic controllers, as well as the account of a surviving flight attendant, indicated the plane ran out of fuel.
Two Bolivian aviation officials were also removed from their jobs as experts probe how officials signed off on a flight plan between Santa Cruz, Bolivia and Medellin that experts and even one of the company’s owners said the limited range British-built jet should never have attempted.
In Brazil, grieving relatives of the dead spoke out in disbelief.
Osmar Machado, whose son, Filipe, a defender on the Chapecoense team, died on his father’s 66th birthday, questioned why the plane was transporting the team.
“Profit brings greed,” Machado said, speaking in the team’s hometown of Chapeco. “This plane ended (the lives of) 71 people.”
Williams Brasiliano, uncle of midfielder Arthur Maia, said the crash could have been avoided if the team had chosen a commercial flight and not a charter.
“Look how complicated that flight was going to be even if it had arrived,” Brasiliano said tearfully of the team’s itinerary, which included a flight from Sao Paulo to Bolivia on a commercial airliner before the ill-fated flight to Medellin.
“I doubt that a bigger club would have done the same,” he added.
Chapecoense spokesman Andrei Copetti defended the decision, saying more than 30 teams had used the LaMia airlines, including the national teams of Argentina and Bolivia. He added that the team itself had flown on its flights before.
“They had a good service then. It was the airline that got in touch with us because they have experience in doing these long flights in South America,” he said.
A recording of the flight’s final minutes showed the pilot repeatedly requested permission to land because of “fuel problems,” although he never made a formal distress call. He was told another plane with mechanical problems had priority for the airport’s single runway and was instructed to wait seven minutes.
As the jetliner circled, the pilot grew more desperate. “Complete electrical failure, without fuel,” he said. By then the controller had gauged the seriousness of the situation and told the other plane to abandon its approach to make way for the charter jet. It was too late.
The lack of an explosion upon impact also pointed to a rare case of fuel burnout as a cause of the crash of the British Aerospace 146 Avro RJ85.
The air traffic controller said in an email sent to her colleagues and released to local media Thursday that she had done everything humanly and technically possible to save the plane.
The Bolivian Civil Aviation Authority announced it had indefinitely halted all flights operated by LaMia and also was suspending some aviation officials during the investigation.
British aviation authorities said the flight data and cockpit voice recorders recovered from the accident site were being taken to Britain for study.
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