Death toll reaches 71 after plane carrying Brazilian football team crashes

Rescue workers search the wreckage in Colombia
Rescue workers search the wreckage in Colombia
Chapecoense players celebrating a semi-final win last week
Chapecoense players celebrating a semi-final win last week

A chartered plane with a Brazilian first division football team has crashed in Colombia while on its way to the finals of a regional tournament, killing 71 people.

Officials said that six people survived the crash near Medellin, but one died later in hospital.

The British Aerospace 146 short-haul plane, operated by a charter airline named LaMia, declared an emergency at 10pm local time on Monday because of an electrical failure, aviation authorities said.

The aircraft, which had departed from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, was transporting the Chapecoense team to Medellin's Jose Maria Cordova airport.

The team, from southern Brazil and which had started its journey in Sao Paulo, was scheduled to play on Wednesday in the first of a two-game Copa Sudamericana final against Atletico Nacional of Medellin.

It was not immediately clear if the team switched planes in Bolivia or just made a stopover with the same plane.

"What was supposed to be a celebration has turned into a tragedy," Medellin Mayor Federico Gutierrez said from the search and rescue command centre.

The club said in a brief statement on its Facebook page that "may God accompany our athletes, officials, journalists and other guests travelling with our delegation".

Brazil as well as South America's football federation extended its condolences to the entire Chapecoense community and said its president, Luis Dominguez, was on his way to Medellin.

All football activities were suspended until further notice, the organization said in a statement.

Elkin Ospina, mayor of La Ceja - near where the crash took place, said rescuers working through the night had been heartened after pulling three passengers alive from the wreckage.

Authorities and rescuers were immediately activated but an air force helicopter had to turn back because of low visibility.

Heavy rainfall complicated the night-time search, and authorities urged journalists to stay off the roads so ambulances and other rescuers could reach the site.

Images broadcast on local television showed three male passengers arriving to a local hospital in ambulances on stretchers and covered in blankets connected to an IV. All were apparently alive and one of them was reportedly a Chapecoense defender named Alan Ruschel.

The plane was carrying 68 passengers and nine crew members, aviation authorities said in a statement.

Local radio said the same aircraft transported Argentina's national squad for a match earlier this month in Brazil, and previously had transported Venezuela's national team.

A video published on the team's Facebook page showed the team readying for the flight earlier on Monday in Sao Paulo's Guarulhos international airport.

The team, from the small city of Chapeco, was in the middle of a fairy tale season. It joined Brazil's first division in 2014 for the first time since the 1970s and made it last week to the Copa Sudamericana finals - the equivalent of the Uefa Europa League tournament - after defeating two of Argentina's fiercest squads, San Lorenzo and Independiente, as well as Colombia's Junior.

The team is so modest that its 22,000-seat arena was ruled by tournament organisers too small to host the final match, which was instead moved to a stadium 300 miles to the north in the city of Curitiba.

"Chapecoense was the biggest source of happiness in the town," the club's vice-president, Ivan Tozzo, told Brazil's SporTV. "Many in the town are crying."

A spokesman for Chapecoense later confirmed the death of goalkeeper Danilo - who had initially been rescued alive from the crash and was being treated at a hospital.

Team spokesman Andrei Copetti announced the death. Another goalkeeper was reported to be among several survivors.

Marking the darkest day in the club's 43-year history, Chapecoense changed the colours of their green and white club badge to black and white on social media accounts.

The Brazilian football federation (CBF) announced the second leg of the Copa do Brasil final between Gremio and Atletico Mineiro, scheduled for Wednesday, would be postponed.

Air travel is an essential and routine part of life for many modern football clubs, and Chapecoense are not the first to have suffered such a tragedy.

The Munich air disaster of 1958 resulted in 23 deaths, as Manchester United returned from a European Cup match in Belgrade, stopping in West Germany to refuel before their plane skidded on slush on the runway when attempting to take off. England players Tommy Taylor and Duncan Edwards were among the fatalities.

Others to have suffered major losses include Italian club Torino, whose first team perished in a 1949 crash in Turin. The Zambia national team suffered the same fate in 1993 when their aircraft crashed into the sea off Gabon.

Peruvian club Alianza Lima were travelling back from a league match when their flight ended in tragedy in December 1987, the first-team squad and coaching staff all lost when their plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean when attempting to land in Lima.