CHAPECO, Brazil (AP) – Thousands squeezed into Chapeco’s cathedral and even more packed a stadium to mourn the death of 71 people in a plane crash, 19 of them members of the Chapecoense club who had been on the brink of soccer greatness.
“To lose (almost) all of them in such a tragic way, totally destroyed our city and each one of us,” Carla Vilembrini said late Tuesday, standing outside Santo Antonio Cathedral. She was dressed like so many others – in the club’s green and white jerseys.
Chapecoense’s fantasy season ended on a muddy Colombian mountainside late Monday when a chartered aircraft crashed south of Medellin. Only six of the 77 passengers and crew survived, three of them players.
The club was having the best season in its 43-year history, heading to the first of two matches in the final of the Copa Sudamericana, the continent’s No. 2 club tournament.
Distraught residents of this southern Brazilian city of 200,000 people, an agribusiness center near the Argentina border, wandered the streets around the stadium – known as Arena Conda – in stunned silence.
“The city is very quiet,” businessman Cecilio Hans said. “People will only believe once the bodies start to arrive.”
On social media, haunting last photos showed the smiling players boarding the flight to Colombia for their match with Atletico Nacional.
In one photo, the team celebrated a last-minute save by goalkeeper Danilo only a week ago against the Argentine club San Lorenzo. The save guaranteed Chapecoense a spot in the final – and ultimately cost Danilo his life in the crash.
“I can’t still believe it,” Alan Heinz said inside the stadium, his body pressed against the fence that separates fans from the field. This time the field was filled by a religious service and prayers for the dead.
“I was preparing for the best day of my life, and now I don’t know what my life will be after this,” he said.
As recently as 2009, the club known as Chape was playing in Brazil’s fourth division, but it won promotion to the top league in 2014 for the first time since the 1970s.
Victories over San Lorenzo and Independente – two of Argentina’s fiercest squads – as well as the Colombian club Junior took the team to the Copa Sudamericana finals, the equivalent of the UEFA Europa League tournament.
Few of the players had an international profile, and none had any appearances with Brazil’s glitzy national team. Most had played all over Brazil and Latin America. Only a few had ever reached Europe, like Cleber Santana, who played for Atletico Madrid in 2007-10.
Chape strikers Bruno Rangel and Kempes, both 34, were among the top scorers in the Brazilian league, with 10 and nine goals, respectively.
The only players to survive were goalkeeper Jakson Follmann, defender Helio Zampier, commonly known as Neto, and defender-midfielder Alan Ruschel.
Coach Caio Junior is credited with Chape’s quick rise, joining the club this year after guiding teams in the Middle East. Born Luiz Carlos Saroli, he coached numerous Brazilian teams, including Palmeiras, Flamengo and Botafogo.
He was among the dead. His son, Matheus Saroli, escaped because he didn’t make the flight, saying in a Facebook post that he couldn’t board “because I forgot my passport.”
An Argentine player on the club, Alejandro Martinuccio, also missed the flight, because of an injury during a game, he told Argentina’s La Red radio.
“I feel deep sadness. The only thing I can ask is prayers for the companions who were on the flight,” he said.
Also among the dead were 20 sports journalists, including Mario Sergio Pontes de Paiva, a former player who worked as a commentator for Fox Sports. He played briefly for Brazil’s national team in the early 1980s and had a long career as a midfielder and coach with many Brazilian clubs. He last coached Brazilian club Internacional in 2009 and Ceara in 2010.
“This is a very, very sad day for football,” FIFA President Gianni Infantino said in a statement. “At this difficult time our thoughts are with the victims, their families and friends.”
Brazilian President Michel Temer declared three days of official mourning, while soccer great Pele called it a “tragic loss.” Brazilian champion Palmeiras asked the country’s football confederation for permission to wear Chapecoense’s jersey in its last match of the season.
Around the world, the sport paused to remember the victims.
Barcelona and Real Madrid held a minute of silence before their practice sessions during the day, and France’s top two leagues observed be a minute’s silence at Tuesday night’s games.
Medellin-based Atletico Nacional said it was asking the South American soccer confederation to give the Copa Sudamericana title to Chape as a tribute to the players who died.
Some of Brazil’s top clubs said they wanted to lend players to Chape for the 2017 season. They also said the team should not be relegated to the second division as it recovers from the disaster.
“The dream is not over. We will fight back when it’s time,” said Chape’s acting club president, Gelson Della Costa.
“Now it’s time to take care of the families,” he said.