COLOMBIA AIR ACCIDENT

A “miracle” amid the tragedy of the Chapecoense air disaster

Six people, two seriously injured, survived tragedy because aircraft did not explode on impact

The six survivors of Monday’s plane crash in Colombia, which killed 71 people, owe their lives to a “miracle”, says Dr. Guillermo León, the head of the San Juan de Dios hospital in La Ceja, the small mountain town from where the rescue operation is being coordinated. Among the six are two players from Brazilian soccer side Chapecoense: Alan Ruschel and Helio Hermito Zampier, along with journalist Rafael Valmorbida.

Rescue workers removing a body from the crash site.
Rescue workers removing a body from the crash site.REUTERS/ATLAS

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“It’s a miracle, there’s no doubt about it. It’s highly unusual to survive an accident of this type. Fortunately, there was no explosion, otherwise everybody aboard would have been killed,” he tells the dozens of journalists, most from Brazil, who have descended on the small hospital.

Two other survivors, crew members Erwin Tumiri and Ximena Suárez, are being treated in the larger Sumer Clinic in the nearby town of Rionegro, where Ruschel has been transferred. His teammate Jackson Follmann, Chapecoense’s goalkeeper, is also at the same hospital, in intensive care. He is reported to have had a leg amputated.

Colombia is working with Brazil  to speed up the transfer of the documents needed to identify the dead

Nicolás Gutiérrez, a security guard at the hospital in La Ceja’s hospital, says the first injured were brought in around 5.45am on Tuesday morning, some seven hours after the crash occurred in bad weather on Monday night. His daughter is a paramedic and woke him around 11pm when she heard the news. He took her to the hospital, where she joined one of the rescue teams heading up to the rain-lashed La Gorda mountainside where the plane crashed.

“I saw the first injured come in, among them was Helio, I recognized him. He was conscious, he said his name,” he explains, adding that he has not seen his daughter since Tuesday morning.

Representatives from the hospitals treating the survivors and where the remains of the victims have been taken say that they will be putting together teams to help the families who are expected to arrive over the coming days. Carlos Valdés, the director of Colombia’s National Legal Medicine and Forensics Institute, outlined to reporters the procedures to identify the dead, which will be carried out in Medillín, about an hour away from La Ceja by road.

“We have a mortuary with the capacity to deal with this disaster, along with laboratories to help with genetics, fingerprinting, radiology and identification,” he said shortly before leaving for Medellín.

The Colombian authorities are working with the Brazilian government to speed up the transfer of the documents needed to identify bodies. “We need to be able to identify through fingerprinting and hospital and dental records. We are also in direct contact with the federal police in Brazil,” he added.

The first injured were brought in around 5.45am on Tuesday

Medellín’s Legal Medicine Institute begin receiving the first bodies on Tuesday evening, which were taken there directly from the crash site. Autopsies will be carried out and they will be identified by a team of 45 people. Valdés says the process of identifying all the victims should take three days and that families will be able to make arrangements for their repatriation by the weekend.

On Tuesday night, fans and well-wishers gathered to pay homage to the victims of the disaster in Medellín’s Atanasio Girardot stadium, where the first leg of the South American Cup between Chapecoense and local side Atlético Nacional was due to be played that evening.

Meanwhile, in La Ceja, people have placed flowers and white banners in honor of a soccer side whose tragedy, so close on the heels of triumph, has earned it sympathy around the world.

English version by Nick Lyne.

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