Colombia plane crash: ‘pilot indicated fuel problem’

Miguel Quiroga had requested landing priority shortly before fatal crash near Medellín

 Relatives of players and managers of Chapecoense attend a vigil at the Arena Conda in Chapeco  after 71 people were killed when the plane carrying them  crashed in a mountainous area outside Medellin. Photograph: Fernando Bizerra Jr/EPA

Relatives of players and managers of Chapecoense attend a vigil at the Arena Conda in Chapeco after 71 people were killed when the plane carrying them crashed in a mountainous area outside Medellin. Photograph: Fernando Bizerra Jr/EPA

 

The pilot of the plane that crashed in Colombia killing 71 people shouted over the radio that he had a “problem with fuel” shortly before Monday night’s accident, according to another pilot flying in the area at the time.

Miguel Quiroga demanded landing priority for his LaMia Avro 146 but was told that a larger Airbus also experiencing problems was ahead of him. Shortly afterwards the plane crashed into hillside 30km south of Medellín.

Most of the victims are players, staff and directors of Brazilian football club Chapecoense which chartered the plane from Bolivian-based LaMia to take the club to Medellín where it was to play in the final of the Copa Sudamericana. Also dead are 20 journalists who had been travelling to cover the game.

Only six of the 77 people on board survived: three Chapecoense players, two of the nine crew and a journalist. All are still being treated in hospital.

Juan Sebastián Upegui, the co-pilot of an Avianca plane in the area at the time of the accident, told Colombian media he heard the pilot of the LaMia flight requesting priority to land because of his fuel problem.

But according to Mr Upegui, the tower said it already had an emergency landing and priority was given to a VivaColombia Airbus A320 coming from the Caribbean which had reported problems with its instruments.

The Avianca pilot said that when the LaMia pilot eventually started his descent he declared an emergency. “He started to say he had a total electrical failure and asked for the quickest route to landing . . . ‘Help, vectors [directions] for reaching the runway,’ he repeated,” said Mr Upegui.

Disappeared from radar

The VivaColombia plane landed safely in poor weather but four minutes later the LaMia flight disappeared from radar. An air hostess who survived the crash, Ximena Suárez, told local officials the cabin lights went out less than a minute before impact, but apart from that she remembers nothing.

Steward Erwin Tumiri said he survived “because I followed protocols”.

He told Colombian radio he adopted the foetal position but other passengers “many of them had got up from their seats and started to shout”.

Investigators from Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia and the United Kingdom, where plane manufacturer British Aerospace is based, are already working to discover the cause of the crash. The two black boxes have been recovered.

One question already raised in Brazilian media is whether the Avro 146 was operating at the limit of its range and did not have enough fuel after being told to circle overhead just south of Medellín while the VivaColombia flight completed its own emergency landing.

It is unclear if the LaMia plane had auxiliary fuel tanks added which would have put Medellín comfortably within its range from its operating base in the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz.

Bereaved families

The city of Chapecó in southern Brazil, home to Chapecoense and the majority of victims, is set to hold a mass wake for the dead at the team’s Arena Condá ground. The remains of all the Brazilian victims will be brought back to the city by the Brazilian air force. The first bodies are expected to arrive in the city from Colombia Thursday.

All the bereaved families are invited to the wake at Chapecoense’s ground, where thousands of fans have congregated since news of the crash reached the prosperous city of 200,000.

In Medellín, fans of Chapecoense’s would-be opponents Atlético Nacional held a procession through the city’s streets on Tuesday night, singing terrace songs in honour of the victims.

Their club has already asked that the Copa Sudamericana be awarded to Chapecoense.