It should have been the time of their lives. After years of struggling, the Brazilian soccer team Chapecoense were on their way to glory. Only days earlier they had fought their way to victory against one of Argentina’s best teams, San Lorenzo. And now they were getting ready to play in one of the biggest football matches in South America. The team and their fans were euphoric. However, their moment of joy would soon turn to tragedy and grief – and for four people in particular, a lifetime of “what ifs”.
Chapecoense was established in 1973 in Chapecó, a city in the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina. A relatively small club in a small city, in 1977 they nonetheless managed to win their first state championship. And the following year they qualified for Série A, which is the country’s highest division. Their climb up the rankings didn’t continue, however, and in the 1990s the club almost disbanded.
Then in 2010 things began to turn around for Chapecoense when president Sandro Pallaoro brought a new professionalism to the club. They might not have had the large budgets of the more famous teams, but through a combination of discipline and motivation they still managed to return to Série A in just three seasons.
Chapecoense were still very much underdogs up until 2014, still without their own training ground. The club director, João Carlos Maringá, received no pay or even travel expenses. Still, by hiring untried but hungry players and taking on discarded members of other teams, they’d reached 11th place in Série A by 2016. Then, incredibly, a tie against Argentina’s San Lorenzo earned the team a place in the Copa Sudamerica final. And that achievement brought them even more adoration from their local fan base.
On the evening of November 28, 2016 – the day that was to shatter so many dreams – the Chapecoense team boarded chartered flight LaMia 2933 from Santa Cruz in Bolivia to José María Córdova International Airport in Colombia. They were due to play the biggest match of their history there, against Colombian side Atlético Nacional. And the general atmosphere aboard the plane was one of elation and excitement.
Aboard the flight were 22 players and 23 staff members, as well as 21 journalists and two guests. Out of the 77 people on the plane, however, only six would survive what was to come. And another four, who were supposed to be on board but missed the flight and were initially presumed dead, would also be haunted by the events to come.
The airline, LaMia, had wanted to fly straight to Colombia from Palmeiras in Brazil, where Chapecoense had played their last match. However, the Bolivia-based airline was not allowed to conduct a direct flight. By all accounts such a journey was permitted only for Brazilian and Columbian charter companies. So the team instead began their charter flight from Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia.
The plan had been to stop off in Cobija, Bolivia, to refuel. But this was scrapped after the take-off was delayed, allegedly because a player demanded to retrieve a gadget from a bag that he’d checked in. As a result, the plane was unable to reach Cobija before its airport closed for the day. Instead they would refuel in Bogota, the Colombian capital. Or at least that was the proposed course of action. To this day, nobody knows why the pilot, Miguel Quiroga, chose not to make that stop. But it was a decision that would cost almost everyone on board Flight 2933 their lives.
Flight 2933 nonetheless almost made it to its destination. The flight began descending into Medellin at 9:30 p.m., with 10 minutes’ worth of fuel left. Unfortunately, they were put into a holding pattern by ground control while another flight was given priority. And it was to be 12 minutes before pilot Quiroga alerted the controllers that he had a fuel emergency. The plane had run out of gas.
One of the few survivors of the flight, Chapecoense player Neto, later described being woken by the aircraft’s jerky flight. A few minutes later, all the engines were dead. “You know the difference between someone turning off a light and when the electricity goes out?” Neto was subsequently quoted as saying by Sports Illustrated. “When the power goes out, this here, that over there – everything goes dead. The plane went completely silent.”
Neto said that he and some of the other passengers started praying. “I first thought that God would perform a miracle and everyone would survive because we would go down in a flat place,” he admitted. “I didn’t imagine that there was a mountain in front of the plane. But when I heard only the sound of wind, I realized that the worst would happen.” And the worst did happen at 9:58 p.m., when the plane collided with a hill called Gerro Gordo, tearing the fuselage apart.
It’s hard to imagine anyone surviving such a crash, but somehow seven people were pulled out of the wreckage alive, including four Chapecoense team members. Star goalkeeper Danilo died soon after arriving in hospital, however, while his backup, Jakson Follman, had his leg amputated. Defender Alan Ruschel required spine surgery and Neto suffered serious injuries that required him to be put into an induced coma for nine days.
Back in Chapeco, the reaction was first shock and confusion, followed by profound grief. Schools were closed and thousands left flowers and messages outside Conda Arena, the Chapecoense home stadium. The sorrow wasn’t limited to Chapecó, though. Three days of national mourning were declared for the whole of Brazil, and messages of condolence poured in from noted football clubs and players around the world.
The South American Football Confederation suspended the Copa Sudamericana final, which Chapecoense had been scheduled to play in, as well as other major games. Chapecoense’s intended opponents in the final, Medellin’s Atlético Nacional, asked for the Brazilian team to be awarded the Copa Sudamericana title and Chapecoense were subsequently declared the 2016 champions.
And for four Brazilians, the crash of Flight 2933 was uniquely poignant. They were each supposed to be aboard the ill-fated flight but had pulled out at the last minute. Their names were even on the manifest, causing the crash investigators in Colombia to originally count them among the dead. The four – none of them Chapecoense players – were Luciano Buligon, Gelson Luiz Merisio, Plinio de Nes Filho and Ivan Carlos Agnoletto. And they have since spoken publicly about their narrow escape from disaster.
As a passionate fan of Chapecoense, Santa Catarina legislator Gelson Merisio had planned to take the flight to Medellin with the team and cheer them on at the match against Atletico Nacional. It turned out that the 50-year-old was too busy to make the trip, however, and he cancelled at the last minute. “I want to be clear, that while I was scheduled to fly on the plane with the team, I opted not to do it due to work obligations this week,” he wrote on his Facebook page to clear up any confusion.
Journalist Ivan Carlos Agnoletto, meanwhile, only learnt about the Flight 2933 crash when his wife began to receive condolence calls. “It was as if I was dead,” he was quoted as saying by CNN. “I went to the TV and saw the plane had crashed.” Like Merisio, Agnoletto changed his plans to travel with Chapecoense at the last minute. “I was scheduled to cover the game, but my colleague had a huge dream to cover an international final,” he explained.
“Only God can explain these things and how I stayed behind,” said Chapecó mayor Luciano Buligon, according to CNN. Buligon had missed his scheduled flight with Chapecoense because of a meeting in Sao Paulo. “It is the biggest tragedy Chapecó could go through,” he added.
Also at the mayor’s meeting was Plinio David Nes Filho, who as president of the Chapecoense team would have been closest to those who died. “This wasn’t just a group of people who respected each other professionally,” he was quoted as saying by the Independent Journal Review. “It was a family, a group of friends. Everybody laughed so much, even in defeat. There was a great atmosphere, great joy.”
Bolivia’s minister of public works, Milton Claros, subsequently blamed the pilot and the airline company for the crash. Claros’ report alleged that the pilot’s failure to refuel at Bogota had led to the electrical failure that brought down Flight 2933. Among those charged was the general director of the airline, LaMia. Meanwhile, relatives of those who died are still seeking answers and reparations.