The pilot of the chartered plane carrying a Brazilian soccer team told air traffic controllers he had run out of fuel before crashing into the Andes, according to a leaked recording of the final minutes of the doomed flight.
In the sometimes chaotic audiotape from the air traffic tower, the pilot of the British-built jet could be heard repeatedly requesting permission to land due to a "total electric failure" and lack of fuel, before slamming into a mountainside late Monday.
A female controller could be heard giving instructions as the aircraft lost speed and altitude about eight miles from the Medellin airport. Just before going silent the pilot said he was flying at an altitude at 9,000 feet.
The recordings, obtained by several Colombian media outlets, seemed to confirm the accounts of a surviving flight attendant and a pilot flying nearby who overheard the frantic pleas from the doomed airliner. These, along with the lack of an explosion upon impact, point to a rare case of fuel running out as a cause of the crash of the airliner, which experts say was flying at its maximum range.
For now, authorities are avoiding singling out any one cause of the crash, which killed all but six of the 77 people on board, including members of Brazil's Chapecoense soccer team traveling to the Copa Sudamericana finals. A full investigation is expected to take months and will review everything from the 17-year-old aircraft's flight and maintenance history to the voice and instruments data in the black boxes retrieved Tuesday at the crash site on a muddy hillside.
Alfredo Bocanegra, head of Colombia's aviation agency, said that while evidence initially pointed to an electrical problem, the possibility the crash was caused by lack of fuel has not been ruled out. Planes need to have enough extra fuel on board to fly at least 30 to 45 minutes to another airport in the case of an emergency, and rarely fly in a straight line because of turbulence or other reasons.
Before being taken offline, the website of LaMia, the Bolivian-based charter company, said the Avro RJ85 jetliner's maximum range was 2,965 kilometers (1,600 nautical miles) — just under the distance between Medellin and Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where the flight originated carrying close to full passenger capacity.
It is also possible the pilot dumped fuel, or a lack of fuel was caused by a leak or some other, unexplained reason.
"If this is confirmed by the investigators it would be a very painful because it stems from negligence," Bocanegra told Caracol Radio on Wednesday when asked whether the plane should not have attempted such a long haul.
One key piece to unlocking the mystery could come from Ximena Sanchez, a Bolivian flight attendant who survived the crash and told rescuers the plane had run out of fuel moments before the crash. Investigators were expected to interview her on Wednesday at the clinic near Medellin where she is recovering.
"'We ran out of fuel. The airplane turned off,'" Sanchez told Arquimedes Mejia, who helped pull the flight attendant from the wreckage. "That was the only thing she told me," he told The Associated Press in an interview.
Investigators also want to speak to Juan Sebastian Upegui, the co-pilot on an Avianca commercial flight who was in contact with air traffic controllers near Medellin's Jose Maria Cordova airport at the time the chartered plane went down.
In a four-minute recording that appears to be an audio message to a friend, Upegui described how he heard the doomed flight's pilot request priority to land because he was out of fuel. Growing ever more desperate, the pilot eventually declared "May Day! May Day!" because of a "total electrical failure," Upegui said, before the plane quickly began to lose speed and altitude in an almost three-minute death spiral.
"I remember I was pulling really hard for them, saying 'Make it, make it, make it, make it,'" Upeqgui says in the recording, which circulated on social media. "Then it stopped...The controller's voice starts to break up and she sounds really sad. We're in the plane and start to cry."
Another clue is the crash site itself, where no traces of fuel have been found. Often planes go up in a ball of flames upon impact but one reason six passengers survived was because the plane didn't explode.
John Cox, a retired airline pilot and CEO of Florida-based Safety Operating Systems, said the aircraft's amount of fuel deserves a careful look.
"The airplane was being flight planned right to its maximum. Right there it says that even if everything goes well they are not going to have a large amount of fuel when they arrive," said Cox. "I don't understand how they could do the flight nonstop with the fuel requirements that the regulations stipulate."
71 dead and 6 survivors after Brazil football team plane crash in Colombia
Colombian authorities searched for answers Tuesday into the crash of a chartered airliner that slammed into the Andes mountains while transporting a Brazilian soccer team whose Cinderella story had won it a spot in the finals of one of South America's most prestigious regional tournaments. All but six of the 77 people on board were killed.
The British Aerospace 146 short-haul plane declared an emergency and lost radar contact just before 10 p.m. Monday (0300 GMT Tuesday), according to Colombia's aviation agency. It said the plane's black boxes had been recovered and were being analyzed.
The aircraft, which departed from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, was carrying the Chapecoense soccer team from southern Brazil for Wednesday's first leg of the two-game Copa Sudamericana final against Atletico Nacional of Medellin. Twenty-one Brazilian journalists were also on board the flight.
Colombian officials initially said the plane suffered an electrical failure but there was also heavy rainfall at the time of the crash. Authorities also said they were not ruling out the possibility, relayed to rescuers by a surviving flight attendant, that the plane ran out of fuel minutes before its scheduled landing at Jose Maria Cordova airport outside Medellin.
Whatever the cause, the emotional pain of Colombia's deadliest air tragedy in two decades was felt across the soccer world.
Expressions of grief poured in as South America's federation canceled all scheduled matches in a show of solidarity, Real Madrid's squad interrupted its training for a minute of silence and Argentine legend Diego Maradona sent his condolences to the victims' families over Facebook.
Brazil's top teams offered to loan the small club players next season so they can rebuild following the sudden end to a fairy tale season that saw Chapecoense reach the tournament final just two years after making it into the first division for the first time since the 1970s. "It is the minimum gesture of solidarity that is within our reach," the teams said in a statement.
Sportsmanship also prevailed, with Atletico Nacional asking that the championship title be given to its rival, whose upstart run had electrified soccer-crazed Brazil.
Rescuers working through the night were initially heartened after pulling three people alive from the wreckage. But as the hours passed, heavy fog and stormy weather grounded helicopters and slowed efforts to reach the crash site.
At daybreak, dozens of bodies scattered across a muddy mountainside were collected into white bags. They were then loaded onto several Black Hawk helicopters that had to perform a tricky maneuver to land on the crest of the Andes mountains.
The plane's fuselage appeared to have broken into two, with the nose facing downward into a steep valley.
Officials initially reported 81 people were on board the flight, but later revised that to 77, saying four people on the flight manifest did not get on the plane.
Images broadcast on local television showed three of the six survivors on stretchers and connected to IVs arriving at a hospital in ambulances.
Chapecoense defender Alan Ruschel was in the most serious condition, and was later transported to another facility to undergo surgery for a spinal fracture. Teammates Helio Zampier and Jakson Follmann also suffered multiple trauma injuries, with doctors having to amputate the goalkeeper Follmann's right leg.
A journalist traveling with the team was recovering from surgery and two Bolivian crew members were in stable condition, hospital officials said.
The aircraft is owned by LaMia, a charter company that started off in Venezuela but later relocated to Bolivia, where it was certified to operate last January. Despite such apparently limited experience the airline has a close relationship with several premier South American squads.
Earlier this month, the plane involved in Monday's crash transported Barcelona forward Lionel Messi and the Argentina national team from Brazil following a World Cup qualifier match. The airliner also appears to have transported the national squads of Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela over the last three months, according to a log of recent activity provided by Flightradar24.com.
Before being taken offline, LaMia's website said it operated three 146 Avro short-haul jets made by British Aerospace, with a maximum range of around 2,965 kilometers (1,600 nautical miles) — about the same as the distance between Santa Cruz and Medellin..
Hans Weber, a longtime adviser to U.S. aviation authorities, said the aircraft's range deserves careful investigation. He noted that the air distance between cities is usually measured by the shortest route but planes rarely fly in a straight line — pilots may steer around turbulence or change course for other reasons.
Given the model of the plane and that it was flying close to capacity, "I would be concerned that the pilots may have been cutting it too close," Weber said.
Bolivia's civil aviation agency said the aircraft picked up the Brazilian team in Santa Cruz, where the players had arrived on a commercial flight from Sao Paulo.
Spokesman Cesar Torrico said the plane underwent an inspection before departing for Colombia and reported no problems.
"We can't rule out anything. The investigation is ongoing and we're going to await the results," said Gustavo Vargas, a retired Bolivian air force general who is president of the airline.
Colombian authorities said they hope to interview the Bolivian flight attendant who relayed the fuel concerns on Wednesday.
Moments before the flight departed, the team's coaching staff gave an interview to a Bolivian television station in which they praised the airline, saying it brought them good fortune when it flew them to Colombia last month for the championship's quarterfinals, which they won.
"Now we're going to do this new trip and we hope they bring us good luck like they did the first time," athletic director Mauro Stumpf told the Gigavision TV network.
The team, from the small Brazilian agro-industrial city of Chapeco, was in the midst of a breakout season. It advanced last week to the Copa Sudamericana finals after defeating some of the region's top teams, including Argentina's San Lorenzo and Independiente, as well as Colombia's Junior.
The team is so modest that tournament organizers ruled that its 22,000-seat arena was too small to host the final match, which was moved to a stadium 300 miles (480 kilometers) to the north, in the city of Curitiba.
The team won over fans across Brazil with its spectacular run to the finals, with some even taking up a campaign online to move the final match to Rio de Janeiro's iconic Maracana stadium, where the 2014 World Cup finals were played.
The tragedy of so many young and talented players' lives and dreams cut short brought an outpouring of support far beyond Brazil's borders. Atletico Nacional said in a statement it was offering its title to the team, saying the accident "leaves an indelible mark on the history of Latin American and world soccer."
Closer to home, fans mourned the terrible loss.
"This morning I said goodbye to them and they told me they were going after the dream, turning that dream into reality," Chapecoense board member Plinio De Nes told Brazil's TV Globo. "The dream was over early this morning."