RIO NEGRO, Colombia (AP) — Victims of this week’s tragic air crash in the Andes were flown home Friday as Bolivia’s president called for “drastic measures” against aviation officials who signed off on a flight plan that experts and even one of the charter airline’s executives said should never have been attempted because of a possible fuel shortage.
The move by President Evo Morales came after evidence emerged that the pilot reported the plane was out of fuel minutes before it slammed into a muddy mountainside, killing all but six of the 77 people on board. Among the dead were players and coaches from a small-town Brazilian soccer team that was headed to the finals of one of South America’s most prestigious tournaments after a fairy-tale season that had captivated their soccer-crazed nation.
As an honor guard played taps early Friday, members of Colombia’s military loaded five Bolivian crew members who died in the crash onto a cargo plane for the trip back home.
Later in the day, caskets containing the remains of 50 Brazilian victims, many draped with sheets printed with their team’s green and white logo, began the journey to the Chapecoense club’s hometown in southern Brazil. Fourteen Brazilian journalists traveling with the team and two passengers from other South American nations were being sent home on separate flights.
Bolivian flight crew member Erwin Tumiri became the first of the survivors to be released from the hospital. Before leaving, he recorded a cellphone message thanking his rescuers and the medical staff who treated him.
The farewells came as details surfaced of possible negligence and unsettling family ties between the Bolivian-based charter company LaMia and the country’s aviation agency, which approved the ill-fated flight Monday between Santa Cruz, Bolivia, and Medellin, Colombia, even though it exceeded the short-haul jet’s maximum flying range.
Attention was focused on a former Bolivian air force general, Gustavo Vargas, who is one of LaMia’s owners and whose son headed the office responsible for licensing aircraft in Bolivia’s civil aviation agency. As part of the investigation, the younger Vargas was suspended Thursday along with several other high-ranking aviation officials. The airline, whose only operable aircraft was the British Aerospace 146 Avro RJ85 that crashed, was also grounded.
Morales said Friday that the elder Vargas served as his pilot in 2006. But he said that he had no knowledge of the airline’s existence and called for a “profound investigation” to explain whether Vargas’ son, also named Gustavo Vargas, favored the airline, which has transported the national teams of Argentina and Brazil, as well as many other top-flight South American clubs.
One of the suspended officials, Marcelo Chavez, the regional director of the agency that controls air traffic in Bolivia, told The Associated Press that an inspector pointed out irregularities in the airlines’ flight plan, including the fact that the aircraft’s fuel capacity was barely enough to fly directly to Medellin. Chavez said the airline decided to go ahead with the flight anyway and air traffic controllers had no authority to prevent them.
On Thursday, the airlines’ operations director told an Argentine radio network that he also had disapproved of the flight plan. “I wouldn’t have flown direct,” said the executive, Marco Rocha.
At LaMia’s main office in Santa Cruz, a secretary said the airline had yet to be notified of any sanctions. A black rose was left outside the door.
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 before crashing just a few miles from Medellin’s international airport.
In the flight’s final minutes, pilot Miguel Quiroga, who co-owned the airline with Vargas, could be heard requesting permission to land because of “fuel problems,” although at first he didn’t make a formal distress call. He was told another plane with mechanical problems had priority to land at 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. But it was too late.
In Brazil, grieving fans and relatives in the soccer team’s hometown of Chapeco prepared for the sad return of so many whose lives were cut short by the crash, hanging origami figures in the club’s colors on the fence of the soccer stadium, where a memorial service was to be held Saturday.
Marissol Dias, who volunteers for the charity that organized the placing of the origami figures in the shape of a crane — considered to be a symbol of peace — said she was overwhelmed by the community’s response. Some 100,000 people were expected at the stadium — about half of the city’s population.
“This comes from a Japanese legend that says if you make 1,000 of these, a wish will be granted,” she said. “Our community did much more than we asked.”
Elsewhere, gravediggers prepared the ground for burial of some of the victims. At the Jardim do Eden cemetery, the caretaker said he was used to the business of death, but this felt different.
“We bury two people every day. I’ve done this job for a long time, but this is different,” said Dirceu Correa. “It is a tragedy for the families, for the club, and also for us, because we are a part of the city.”
Valdez reported from La Paz, Bolivia. Associated Press writers Hannah Dreier in Caracas, Venezuela; Cesar Garcia in Bogota, Colombia, and Mauricio Savarese in Chapeco, Brazil, contributed to this report.