Medellín, Colombia—The bodies of the 71 victims killed in a plane crash in Colombia that wiped out a Brazilian football team have returned home over the weekend, as mourners prepared a massive funeral.
Along the road to the airport, hundreds of people brandished flowers, white balloons and Colombian flags to pay a final farewell to the victims of Monday’s tragedy.
The remains of the first victim, Paraguayan crew member Gustavo Encina, were handed over to his family early Friday in a coffin draped in his country’s flag.
The other victims – 64 Brazilians, five Bolivians and a Venezuelan – were flown home on a series of flights throughout the day.
“What we want now more than anything else is to go home, to take our friends and brothers home. The wait is the worst,” said Roberto Di Marche, a cousin of football team Chapecoense Real’s late director Nilson Folle Junior.
In the club’s hometown, the southern Brazilian city of Chapeco, more than 100,000 people – about half the city’s population – are expected to attend a memorial service Saturday in honor of the team, whose fairytale season was tragically cut short.
FIFA chief Gianni Infantino canceled a trip to Australia to attend the funeral. Officials said Brazilian President Michel Temer would likely travel to Chapeco as well.
“The #Chapecoense will remain in our memory for their perseverance and tenacity. I reiterate my deepest solidarity with relatives of the victims,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos wrote on Twitter as the last plane departed.
The bodies will be carried during a funeral procession through the city, ending with a ceremony at the team’s stadium.
Authorities are still investigating what caused the charter flight to smash into the mountains outside Medellin, where Chapecoense was due to play the biggest match in its history – the finals of the Copa Sudamericana, South America’s second-largest cup tournament.
A harrowing recording has emerged of the panicked pilot asking the control tower for priority to land because he was out of fuel, which would make the crash tragically avoidable.
Colombia’s civil aviation safety chief, Freddy Bonilla, said the plane disregarded international rules on fuel reserves.
The Bolivia-based charter company, LAMIA, had its permit suspended Thursday, and the government there ordered an investigation into its operations. Bolivia has also suspended the executive staff of its civil aviation authority and the airports administrator for the duration of the probe.