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Brazilian soccer team's plane crashes in Colombia; 75 dead

Last Updated Nov 29, 2016 at 7:08 am EDT

Players of Brazil's Chapecoense celebrate at the end of a Copa Sudamericana semifinal soccer match against Argentina's San Lorenzo in Chapeco, Brazil, on Nov. 23, 2016. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Andre Penner

A chartered plane with a Brazilian first division soccer team crashed near Medellin while on its way to the finals of a regional tournament, killing 75 people, Colombian officials said Tuesday. Six people survived.

The British Aerospace 146 short-haul plane, operated by a charter airline named LaMia, declared an emergency at 10 p.m. Monday because of an electrical failure, aviation authorities said.

The aircraft, which had departed from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, was transporting the Chapecoense soccer team to Medellin’s Jose Maria Cordova airport.

The team, from southern Brazil and which had started its journey in Sao Paulo, was scheduled to play Wednesday in the first of a two-game Copa Sudamericana final against Atletico Nacional of Medellin.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the team switched planes in Bolivia or just made a stopover with the same plane.

“What was supposed to be a celebration has turned into a tragedy,” Medellin Mayor Federico Gutierrez said from the search and rescue command centre.

The club said in a brief statement on its Facebook page that “may God accompany our athletes, officials, journalists and other guests travelling with our delegation.”

Brazil as well as South America’s soccer federation extended its condolences to the entire Chapecoense community and said its president, Alejandro Dominguez, was on his way to Medellin. All soccer activities were suspended until further notice, the organization said in a statement.

Elkin Ospina, mayor of La Ceja, near where the crash took place, said rescuers working through the night had been heartened after pulling three passengers alive from the wreckage.

Authorities and rescuers were immediately activated but an air force helicopter had to turn back because of low visibility. Heavy rainfall complicated the nighttime search, and authorities urged journalists to stay off the roads so ambulances and other rescuers could reach the site.

Images broadcast on local television showed three male passengers arriving to a local hospital in ambulances on stretchers and covered in blankets connected to an IV. All were apparently alive and one of them was reportedly a Chapecoense defender named Alan Ruschel.

The plane was carrying 72 passengers and nine crew members, aviation authorities said in a statement. Local radio said the same aircraft transported Argentina’s national squad for a match earlier this month in Brazil, and previously had transported Venezuela’s national team.

British Aerospace, which is now known as BAE Systems, says that the first 146-model plane took off in 1981 and that just under 400 — including the successor Avro RJ — were built in total in the U.K. through 2003. It says around 220 of are still in service in a variety of roles, including aerial firefighting and overnight freight services.

A video published on the team’s Facebook page showed the team readying for the flight earlier Monday in Sao Paulo’s Guarulhos international airport.

The team, from the small city of Chapeco, was in the middle of a fairy tale season. It joined Brazil’s first division in 2014 for the first time since the 1970s and made it last week to the Copa Sudamericana finals — the equivalent of the UEFA Europa League tournament — after defeating two of Argentina’s fiercest squads, San Lorenzo and Independiente, as well as Colombia’s Junior.

The team is so modest that its 22,000-seat arena was ruled by tournament organizers too small to host the final match, which was instead moved to a stadium 480 kilometres to the north in the city of Curitiba.

“Chapecoense was the biggest source of happiness in the town,” the club’s vice-president, Ivan Tozzo, told Brazil’s SporTV. “Many in the town are crying.”

Associated Press writer Mauricio Savarese contributed to this report from Rio de Janeiro.

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