They promised to come back as heroes. But, they left us, as heroes, forever.
28th November 2016; it was about 18:18 local time (UTC -4) in the evening; Chartered flight RJ85 LaMia 2933 took off from Viru Viru International Airport, Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia, carrying the Brazilian Chapecoense football team to play the first leg of the 2016 Copa Sudamericana final against Atletico Nacional in Medellin, Columbia. It was going to be the biggest match in the club’s history. After seeing off financially stronger rivals in the previous rounds, they were very much upbeat about their fantastic run throughout the season, one similar to that of England’s Leicester City (2015/16 season). Everbody was in the happy mood, confident going into the finals. The players were hanging out, playing cards and enjoying the music on the plane.
The original flight schedule included a refuelling halt at Cobija, near Bolivia-Brazil border. Interestingly, one of the players requested to have a video game retrieved from his luggage in the aircraft’s cargo. The crew responded to it [which ate up time]. A delay to the takeoff meant that the planned refuelling stop had to be cancelled due to the airport at Cobija closing past midnight. Three hours into the flight, the pilot reported an electrical failure and fuel exhaustion and began to descend considerably from its cruising altitude.
At 21:49 local time (UTC -5), on approaching Medellin Airport, the pilot asked for priority landing, without making a formal distress call. But, the Air Traffic Controller (ATC) denied permission to land as another Bogota to San Andreas-bound VivaColumbia aircraft had already asked for an emergency landing after suffering a mechanical fault. Instead, the LMI2933 was asked to fly a holding pattern for about seven minutes and wait for its turn to land along with three-four other planes. At 21:57, the LaMia pilot declared a fuel emergency. This time ATC responded positively to the landing request but received back no response after 21:58. Probably, destiny had made its final call.
Disaster struck at 21:59 when the aircraft ran completely out of fuel. The LaMia 2933 nosedived into the ridges of the Cerro Gordo mountains, just 30 km away from its final stop at Medellin, killing 71 out of 77 people on board. It was a dreadful night for football fraternity across the globe. What started as a fairytale ended up as a nightmare of the worst possible kind.
Chapecoense’s reserve goalie Jakson Follmann and two of his teammates, defenders Alan Ruschel and Helio Neto survived the crash along with two aircraft crew members and a journalist. First team goalkeeper Danilo, who initially survived the crash was able to call his wife but succumbed to his injuries at the hospital.
(L-R:) Chapecoense survivors Jakson Follman, Helio Neto and Alan Ruschel
Investigations held deceased pilot Miguel Alejandro Quiroga Murakami guilty for the mishap. The plane crashed because it didn’t have enough fuel and the pilot didn’t confess until it was too late. Another theory suggests that Quiroga may have heroically dumped fuel in a bid to prevent an explosion on impact. The plane remained in flight for 4hrs and 22 minutes which is the exact optimum flight time for that airliner.
It was the same LaMia aircraft which had been chartered previously by national team squads from Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela as well as top clubs such as Atletico Nacional (Colombia), The Strongest, Blooming, Oriente Petrolero and Real Potosi (Bolivia) and Olimpia (Paraguay); in fact Lionel Messi and his national teammates used the services of the flight just two weeks prior to the incident.
After the tragic event, another Chapeco defender Demerson Costa – one of the seven players who didn’t travel with the team revealed that, while they were busy wishing each other before departure, Club director Chinho Di Domenico joked about the plane being held up to search for the video game in WhatsApp group chat.
“The last message that was sent to the group was from Chinho making fun of the fact that one of the players was holding up the flight from Bolivia because he had forgotten to take his video game out of his bags before it had been dispatched,” Costa said.
Days after the incident, when Helio Hermito Zampier Neto woke up from a coma, he asked the doctor about the result of the doomed Cup final which never happened. Neto later revealed that he had a terrible nightmare a few days before the incident. “On the day of the trip to the finals, I couldn’t get the nightmare out of my mind. The dream was so vivid. It was hammering in my mind. So I sent a message to my wife from the aeroplane. I told her to pray to God to protect me from that dream. I didn’t want to believe that it was really going to happen. So I asked her to pray for me.”
THE CHAPECOENSE STORY ★ The Team Who Conquered the World •
Neto’s wife Simone stated that her husband is serious about his faith and reads his Bible all the time and takes it with him on his trips. While people were searching the plane wreckage, one Roberto Cabrini, a Brazilian journalist, found a bedraggled book in the debris. It was believed to be the holy Bible (with Psalm 63 bookmarked) which Neto was carrying.
The Psalm reads in part:
When I remember You on my bed,
I meditate on You in the night watches,
For You have been my help,
And in the shadow of Your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to You;
Your right hand upholds me.
Defender Alan Ruschel recalls, “It was a happy moment for the whole team, we were making history for the club. We wanted to seize the day and win the title.” In his first press conference after the accident, Alan Ruschel revealed how he swapped seats on board the flight. “Cadu Gaucho [Club Director] asked me to sit further forward and let the journalists sit together at the back. I didn’t want to but then I saw [Jakson] Follman and he insisted that I sit beside him.”
“Only God can explain why I survived the accident. He grabbed me and gave me a second chance,” he added.
Follman’s father, Paul said, “In a plane crash, you know that the chance of survival is virtually zero. That my son was among the survivors is a miracle of God.” Unfortunately, Jakson lost his right leg and is learning to walk with a prosthetic limb.
One year on and people still have fond memories of the Big Greens (as they are nicknamed). The club which struggled in the country’s 4th division in 2009 were quick to shift gears and move to the top flight. In 2016, opposition teams found it tough to deal with Chapecoense at their home games in Arena Conda. They are a household name now. Displaying a “fair play” gesture, Columbian club Atletico Nacional asked CONMEBOL to award the 2016 Copa Sudamericana title to Chapecoense.
It was indeed a TRAGEDY in its truest sense!