A Year Later, Questions and Hurt Remain from Chapecoense Tragedy

Ewan MacKennaSpecial to Bleacher ReportNovember 27, 2017


There was a pause, but the moment needn't have lingered. The realisation and choking frustration was immediate.

Matheus Saroli was heading down in the elevator of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Sao Paulo, Brazil, when his father broke the good news: a plane ticket to Colombia, meaning he'd now take his place at the big game. However, Saroli had arrived in the city on an internal flight.

"Where's your passport?" came the question. Before it was out, they both knew the answer.

"I don't have it," he said. "You told me the whole time I can't go."

Delirium to disaster. At least that ought to have been the lasting emotion. Yet, with neither the expectation nor the need, brutal perspective was creeping closer.

Saroli idolised his dad, and it was easy to see why. Caio Junior had been a decent professional footballer, but he was a better manager. His CV was dotted with some of the biggest clubs in Brazil. After a stint working away in Dubai, he and his family decided in mid-2016 that home mattered most and agreed he should take on a project.

In a nation where a few bad results often see chairmen burn down the house to get the flies out of the kitchen, the small southern city of Chapeco was somewhere he could take time, test himself and try to build something special.

It turns out he didn't need much time. In his first handful of months, the local club got past relative behemoths such as Independiente, Atletico Junior and San Lorenzo and into the final of the Copa Sudamericana.

But while Saroli had been to many games—he was in Sao Paulo for a Brazilian top-flight clash and had shared a hotel room with his father—continental ties had meant chartered planes. To save it getting messy, Caio Junior had stopped the families of the team from boarding. As if a test, that included his own.

"Monday morning, I wake and am in a hurry because I've to go to the other airport, not the international one, to fly home," Saroli says. "Then my dad tells me, 'Look, the flight changed. Now you can go. The first part is commercial.'

"I was so excited, and then, that 15 seconds we were in the lift. ... The situation was I didn't actually need a passport for Colombia, but he'd never been, so he didn't know that. But that was it. If we had the conversation a minute later, I would have gone."

A few days later, Saroli was in Chapecoense's stadium next to his mother as the coffins were brought in one by one and marched around the field.

"The day was horrible," he recalls as rain fell like tears. "We were in a box on one side of the ground, and the bodies were carried in on the other side by the army so they'd come from the far touchline all the way across to us. There was about 50 coffins.

"The strangest thing happened, though. When one came by, I nearly fell to the floor. My mom didn't know what hit me. But I kept following it with my eyes. And I was right. It was Dad."

Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press

He says he can't explain that, but there's been a lot he's struggled to explain across the year since 28 November, 2016, when LaMia 2933 plunged into a mountain on its way to Medellin, Colombia, killing 71 of the 77 on board, including Caio Junior.

Top of that list tends to be why this happened, as that question needs to be separated from the cold and surgical facts around how this happened.

There is no excuse for letting a modern jet run low on fuel, never mind run dry. Standard operating procedure ought to stop it happening, as should aviation law. But even when those are bypassed for whatever reason, low-fuel amber lights will come on in the cockpit.

Pilots at this point carry out the quick-reference handbook procedures. Then, when there's nothing to quench the engine's thirst, an electrical generator or a hydraulic pump will provide energy to vital controls. That electrical or hydraulic power will go next, bringing on more warnings as noise and panic increase.

That must have been the case up front on LaMia 2933 in its final moments. Back in the cabin, however, it went quiet. Ximena Suarez was the air hostess on duty and remembers it just like that.

"We didn't have access to the cockpit; the last I saw of the flight deck was when I brought the pilots dinner," she says. "I just heard the captain's voice again when he said over the intercom we were approaching, so I got the cabin ready.

"It was a really normal flight until we started going around and one of the passengers asked why. I wanted to ask the pilots about it, so I reached for the phone and the lights went off. I had the phone in my hand, and there was no shouting or anything. Silence. Then came the impact. The only noise was after we hit due to the screaming.

"It's a lie when some said in the news that people were out of their seats. If they got up, I'd have to get up as well, and I wouldn't be here today."

She got lucky, and she now has a tattoo of a LaMia aircraft on her back heading to heaven to remember those who didn't. Those unaware of the gamble that was taken with their lives.

After Caio Junior and his band of underdogs had made their way from Sao Paulo to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, on a commercial flight, they boarded a chartered Avro RJ85 for Medellin.

According to the flight plan, captain Miguel Quiroga—who also was joint-owner of LaMia, a detail that cannot be overlooked considering the conflict of interest in the industry between profit margins and safety levels—had filled in an estimated flight time of four hours and 22 minutes. Underneath, the fuel range was filled in as exactly the same. This was no mistake, with airline employees later saying such cost-cutting measures weren't a one-off.

The other co-owner of LaMia, Gustavo Vargas Gamboa, pleaded guilty to the first earlier this year and has been under house arrest since. With serious heart problems, he was unable to talk, having recently been taken into surgery. All the while, his son was head of the Bolivian national aviation authority who authorised the LaMia paperwork and procedures.

It gets more damning still.

In the days after the crash, a mechanic came forward and spoke under anonymity.

"I noticed Quiroga in my hangar about five or six times in the last 40 days," he said. "The Atletico team [Nacional, Chapecoense's final opponents] flew twice with him, Sportivo Luqueno traveled with him, the national teams of Venezuela, Argentina and Bolivia, too.

"They always traveled with fuel on the edge to make more money. A week ago, I called my lawyer trying to prohibit the operation of that aircraft for the crashed flight, but I think it wasn't in time. They got permission to go ahead."

"It was a small company," Suarez adds. "They were growing a lot, but we had problems in the company with health insurance, salaries were late—this kind of thing. We were flying a lot, though, so there was a lot of overtime. Miguel Quiroga was a really good pilot and, to be honest, I don't know what went wrong in his head. An excellent person.

"People keep asking me about him, but all the questions I have to ask him, that will only happen when I die. Why they didn't tell me anything? Why they didn't warn me? What happened, though—the psychological effects were worse than the physical effects. I am terrified of the darkness. Now I cannot stay in a dark place. I have nightmares all the time, and I see it and get so scared. And why? I'll only know the answers when I'm gone."

The Avro RJ85 has a listed range of 1,600 nautical miles, but the distance from Santa Cruz to Medellin is 1,604 nautical miles. That doesn't take into consideration that a plane never flies in a direct line between points due to external factors such as hold-ups and headwinds, or that a jet out of the factory 17 years consumes more fuel than it did when it was brand new.

Besides, a planned journey on this plane should be under three hours, with law requiring an additional 30 minutes of fuel reserves for the time it would take to reach an alternate airport (here, Bogota was that alternate, a full 55 minutes away). Then there's the need for 5 percent contingency fuel. Being generous, you get four hours and 15 minutes of maximum journey time as a risky call, yet from takeoff to off-radar, LaMia 2933 was a half-hour above that. And still they stood a chance, although in aviation, they call it the Swiss cheese effect, where all holes must align for a disaster.

At the Medellin airport, air traffic controller Yaneth Molina had come to work in the tower that night as she had done for 22 years.

Yaneth Molina
Yaneth MolinaEwan McKenna

"Never in all that time did it happen like this. It was such a coincidence that at the same time, two planes declared emergency. And for the same reason, a fuel emergency," she recalls of an Airbus A320 belonging to Viva that asked for priority landing that night due to a suspected leak. It forced LaMia into a holding pattern as warnings flashed in the cockpit.

Quiroga had taken too long, though. He should have called pan-pan or mayday, granting him priority, although that would have resulted in obviously unwanted on-ground inspections and interviews. Thus his language didn't incorporate the correct terminology, meaning Molina didn't know the severity for several more minutes.

"The pressure suddenly goes up," she says, "but I had all that experience to deal with this inconvenience. At least, I thought it was just an inconvenience at first. But then there's a moment of powerlessness, sadness and frustration that I had to pass through. That's when the plane goes off the radar, and the first thing is to call emergency services."

Nelson Castrillon of the police was one of those in the emergency services that night.

"When we arrived, there was a thick fog," he says. "The plane looked like a white spot, but as we got closer, I saw it had been totally shattered. I stood there looking for who was alive, trying to hear if someone was breathing. But body by body, none had vital signs.

"Suddenly, I heard someone's voice. 'Please help. Help.' I took a flashlight and lit his face and he held out his hand. 'Please, I do not want to die.' And I answered, 'Calm down, my friend. I am the national police. You're already saved.' There was a dead body on top of him, and I moved the corpse and stayed with him talking, to calm him. And at that moment, I found out this was Jakson Follmann, the Chapecoense goalkeeper."

Arquimedes Mejia of the fire brigade was one of those in the emergency services that night.

"A week earlier, we'd been running drills around a plane crash, but training isn't like reality," he says. "The crash was up in the mountains, and as we got close, it was just the sound of dogs barking through the night. Then Ximena Suarez was heard shouting, and her voice guided us to her and other survivors.

"They were in the upper part of Cerro Gordo, where the landing gear hit. The bodies of the dead were in the canyon below. It took an hour-and-a-half to rescue Ximena, as she was stuck in a tree, screaming about the pain and asking where the captain and crew were."

Police officer Marlon Lengua was one of those in the emergency services that night.

"I heard a lot of despair over the radio, but the first image of the plane left me in shock," he says. "I just put my hands on my head, too traumatised to speak. By then, they said all survivors had been taken, and with a strong storm coming and 250 rescuers in this terrain, they were scared of an avalanche and withdrew all but five of us who were left to keep watch.

"We camped under a part of the plane—the cold was unbearable—but I started walking around asking, 'Why did this happen?' I saw cones, jerseys, boots, and as a football lover, this was torment.

"I even heard a noise and thought I was going crazy, but I heard it again. We did not know if it was a flight attendant, a journalist or a player, but we knew it was a guy called Neto because we found his name on his ID, and we talked all the time to him. 'Neto, we are with you.' He was alive but he had an open wound on his head, right through to the skull, which was horrific. We just wanted to get him out of that hell."

It was a hell that had come to their part of South America, but it had yet to reach another.

Susana Ribas was never much of a football fan; thus, it wasn't Willian Thiego's job that impressed her. He may have been a physical defender on a three-month trial at Gremio, but it was the person and not the player who captivated her when they first met at a birthday party.

"I still remember the day," says Ribas, "28 October, 2006. We got talking, and after that, we never left each other."

The Ribas family
The Ribas familySusana Ribas

Over the next decade, Thiego's career had come a long way. Before the accident, he had signed a deal with Santos, the club of Pele and Neymar, for the 2017 season. His family life had come a long way, too, as he married and had a little girl. When he set off to Sao Paulo and on to Colombia, the child's age meant it was too early to wake her, so he whispered a goodbye that become a forever farewell.

"I kissed him and told him to go with God and to call me when he arrived," Ribas remembers. "Everything was working so well for the team, in all the games. Thiego used to tell me, 'Today, if we played against Barcelona, we would beat them.'

"They were all in tune: the squad, the fans, the city. And we were all really close to each other. I am telling you this because we were going on holidays together, 10 couples and kids, to Punta Cana after the final.

"But he called when he got to Santa Cruz, and that was the last time we talked. He was boarding and said, 'Sweetheart, this is the last trip this year. After this game, we're going to enjoy our holidays, and next year we will be in Santos.'"

When Anderson Donizete got in touch with his wife, Jacqueline Madrid, that final day, his words were a mix of the marvelous and the mundane. They'd met when he'd gone to Uruguay to do some missionary work, but his other passion (sport) eventually got him the job of Chapecoense kit man three years prior. His dream, though, was always to some day do the job with the Brazilian national team.

"We talked on the morning when he was in Sao Paulo," Jacqueline says, "and he said happy anniversary, as it was our 14th anniversary on 27 November. He said he was hungry as he didn't have time to have breakfast; they were having problems with checking in due to documentation issues and the flight was delayed. After, when he got to Santa Cruz and called again, it was just normal. Why wouldn't it be? There should be nothing abnormal about it."

So many cling to those last calls, but for Matheus Saroli, it was the lack of a call that troubles him. He had told his father to ring when he got there. When he didn't hear from him, he presumed he was too busy and went to sleep. Then there was a flood of activity on his phone that awoke him.

PING. "Answer my calls."

PING. PING. "Turn on the news." "Are you seeing this?"

PING. "Please answer your phone."

"I was living in an apartment by myself," he says. "My mom lives across from me in another one. It was unusual he didn't send a message saying he'd arrived, but I went to sleep around midnight, and by 2 a.m., my phone was blowing up. I finally took a look and from then I started following anything I could. The phone, the TV, my computer. Anything.

"I did that for two hours and went and woke my mom up, and we sat watching the news. I don't think we moved for the next 48 hours. You know, you don't believe it. You are in shock. You can't process anything. It's terrible, but you still have hope. There are survivors. There are survivors. ... They're still finding people. ... He got away from the plane in case of an explosion. Your mind goes nuts. Horrible, and it was only the start."

Rivas had just finished up a barbecue to celebrate her father's birthday and had spent the night packing luggage for her family's upcoming holiday. With no call from her husband, she simply thought they had no internet connection and fell asleep without worry.

"But I woke up with my sister calling me, and my mom just said the Chapecoense plane had crashed," she says. "When I saw on television that there were survivors, I was sure Thiego was alive. I only accepted it when they showed me the list of deceased. That was the worst week of my life, going to Chapeco to get his body, bringing it to his home city of Aracaju to bury him. I didn't sleep once even though I was taking pills."

She didn't tell their daughter directly, either. Instead, she explained that her father had gone to play football with Uncle Kleber in heaven and that every time she sees a star in the sky, her father is up there watching her.

"Now she knows her dad won't come back, so she doesn't ask about him, but she talks about him all the time, mentioning the memories she has, things they used to do," she says. "But after the accident, everything changed. I feel a hole in my heart, and it doesn't go away, it gets worse. I have to keep a smile on my face for our daughter, but I can't move on."

After talking, she sends on photos of the three of them together with a message. "To see those pictures again is painful. I miss him so much. This hurt is a knot in my throat. It's all too hard."

On the night of the scheduled game in Medellin, a touching ceremony took place in the usually intimidating Atanasio Girardot Stadium as burning passion became stunning peace, and the best of humanity emerged from the misery.

Dressing in white while carrying flowers and candles, Colombian fans filled the bowl while tens of thousands more gathered outside. Back in Brazil, the station scheduled to broadcast the game left the screen black, with the score and the clock ticking away in the corner.

Meanwhile, Atletico Nacional awarded the title to a team that no longer really existed.

Fernando Vergara/Associated Press

Moments like these brought it home to many and inspired others. Gabriel Andrade had never been to Chapeco and wasn't a fan of Chapecoense, but he was friends with striker Tulio De Melo, who had left the club before the accident.

"He called me, and he was very emotional because he had loads of friends on the plane," Andrade says. "He wanted us to help the families of the victims."

They came up with the idea of Abravic, a nonprofit association for those left behind, which Andrade presides over. It began last March, but bureaucracy and chaos meant vital results have only recently started to come through.

"From the beginning, what I could see was the desperation of the families—and the club as well," Andrade says. "It is a humanitarian tragedy, and it brought a lot of commotion. It was a mix of despair and a lack of coordination. And when I came to the club, it was easy to see they were lost—without direction, without structure, not knowing what to do. It wasn't deliberate, but they helped sparingly and didn't create an accident committee or have crisis management."

It may feel inappropriate to talk about money, but as much as life changes, it goes on. As do the costs. Recently, the association helped broker a deal where each family received R$11,000 (around $3,360) from a couple of friendly games abroad, which was half the income. That 50 percent will continue to flow from special events.

In October, a monthly R$28,800 started making its way to the association as well for projects such as partnerships providing therapy for the families of those who died, health insurance and medical supplies to parents who may have relied on their sons' incomes via what was more than a game and money to send their kids to school.

"You can't overlook that aspect," says Susana Ribas. "We used to have a comfortable life, and now with the state pension, what we get is not even 10 percent of what we used to get. However, the association helps, and the club helps us to try to get on with our lives in some small way."

Jacqueline Madrid agrees and can't thank the club, where she works as a secretary, enough. "I left Uruguay, and here my husband was my only family. It's been so hard. I've had my birthday, my wedding anniversary and the one-year anniversary of losing him all in such a short space that this has overwhelmed me.

"I remember that I was told what happened by an Argentinian reporter who had been here with River Plate, and I did some translations. At three that morning, he told me. But we never had a lot of money, and since then, the club and Abravic have paid my rent. But it's not just money, either. To stay sane, I've just put all my energy into the club. They've been so good to me."

With the investigation not closed in Colombia and difficulties around documentation in Bolivia, insurance has still not been paid, though.

"Like any person involved in an accident or murder, investigators need answers, too," Andrade says. "But the families will get their insurance—it is their right—and we will continue to do all we can to make life more bearable each day."

Andrade is an example of the selfless good that emanated from what happened a year ago, but let's not pretend there hasn't been a dark side, too. After all, where there is yang, there is yin.

Chapecoense played Barcelona in a friendly.
Chapecoense played Barcelona in a friendly.Manu Fernandez/Associated Press

Take Luis Ara, a Uruguayan documentary maker who had followed the team's rise for many years on a personal level. He says he approached the club shortly after the accident, asked for permission to tell their story and agreed to give half the proceeds to the families.

He has invested much of the last 12 months into The Miracle of Chapeco, traveling from Medellin to the friendly in Barcelona, shooting exclusive footage. Ara says Chapecoense told him the donation would be handled by them, and so production began. But upon release, an injunction came.

"It was from the club," Ara says, "and it was because they messed up. I cannot say a lot as it's in court, but basically they forgot to tell all the families, so those families were baffled as to why they didn't know about it. And so was I."

According to Ara, the club made three specific complaints against him. First, that he had no permission, even though he says he has the release forms. "And how could we not have," Ara says, "we were in the stadium, in dressing rooms?" Second, they claimed it was sensationalist, when Ara says that complaint was filed on a Friday and he only sent the club a copy the next day. "Besides, the families said it was anything but." And third, the club weren't informed of the release date, when he says, "I have emails to the contrary."

There's been plenty of other unpleasantness, too. By the new year, in the state championship, when a new and quickly assembled Chapecoense side traveled to nearby Criciuma, the home fans chanted, "Ao, ao, ao, abastece o aviao," which roughly translates as "refuel your plane."

Meanwhile, some spoken to have also bemoaned the commercialisation of the accident and said the integrity of grief has been compromised by the marketing of death. The club itself refused all requests to speak to any of its employees.

Matheus Saroli has taken issue with Chapecoense. Back in April, a cutting post went up on his Facebook page.

"The club's focus is on reconstruction. Let's make it clear though, reconstruction is something built exclusively on people who are no longer among us. I'm talking about the president, financial director and soccer director, among others who created this project from scratch years ago, and who took Chapecoense from a club level practically non-existent to a Serie A team... Today the club is managed by people without any connection to the victims. Their connection is to marketing, expansion and profit... It is impressive how much they are worried about the club reconstruction but not about constructing an image of all the warriors who gave their lives to the club... They hire an artistic director, sponsor race cars, do pyrotechnic shows, for this vital 'reconstruction'.

"My question is if the club took the year to give sole and exclusive attention to the victims, would we have a different scenario? Would we have media giving attention to those who deserve and need help now? Would we have the people required to help children with psychological treatment and countless other situations? Would we have people to resolve all bureaucratic issues involving of more than 50 families that have not at all been resolved to date? But no, hiring an artistic director for an absurd party and a whole new cast is a priority in this rebuilding."

You ask him about this. "There's not much more I can say," he says. "I felt like at the beginning rather than reconstructing the team, they should have focused more on the people that had lost so much. It is what it is. We are doing the best we can, but we don't have a relationship with the club anymore."

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

There's an uncomfortable truth and an uncomfortable feeling provided by anniversaries such as this one.

From the outside, it feels like we're rubbernecking at grief, voyeurs peeking in on misery, raking over the cold coals because of the convenient date. Did you care last week? Will you care next week? For the rest of us, it's been a cosy round number to revisit. But for those left behind, it's been 365 days, 52 weeks, 8,760 hours, 535,600 minutes of physical and mental suffering.

"After an event like that, your life changes completely," Yaneth Molina, the air traffic controller, says. "Personally. Professionally. Psychologically. I've been questioned by everybody, they all look in my direction."

The 47-year-old only recently returned to work, but she knew from that night she'd have to live with that radar screen and the call sign of Lima Mike India and those victims forever. In the airport, after finishing her duties, it caused her to run to a toilet and lose it before finally calling her husband. "I just told him, 'I lost a plane.'"

When she got home, she broke down again before a doctor arrived to evaluate her. "I found myself crying inconsolably in my bed. The diagnosis of the doctor did not surprise me. Post-traumatic stress. In aviation, that's really post-accident stress. It was a diagnosis that required the people around me to be watching over me in case they noticed any significant change in my mood or any behaviour that was too aggressive or too passive." But she admits much of this year has been spent with the repetitive, rhetorical question: "Why me?"

Where there is dark, though, shards of light shine brighter.

Jakson Follmann
Jakson FollmannSilvia Izquierdo/Associated Press

Jakson Follmann for instance, a 24-year-old athlete and one of the six survivors of the crash, started his 2017 with a prosthetic lower right leg—and within a week of physio, he had beaten all odds to merely take a step.

"I cried a lot," he told the New York Times. "But the few times I think about the accident, I try to turn my mind around. I try to think about everybody’s happiness, and this is good for me because I only think good things about those who are gone. And this strengthens me. The image that stays with me is of everybody’s smiles."

Of the two other players who survived, as they were also sitting near the wings, Alan Ruschel has returned to play with the team, starting as captain in the friendly with Barcelona in August.

Meanwhile, Neto has added, "I'll be back in 2018" with a club that has maintained its top-flight status. "I'm like an old car," he joked, "it's giving a lot of trouble. My gall bladder was operated on, now I'm going to have knee surgery."

Across the year, those who saved them also had a chance to meet the individuals they kept alive, which has made a massive impact. Small mercies. Little victories. Nelson Castrillon, who found Follmann under a corpse, describes it "as the most beautiful" when the goalkeeper arrived in Colombia to meet up.

"He hugged me and thanked me," Castrillon says. "I think it was the most spectacular thing I have ever had in my life that Jakson Follmann from the beginning acknowledged that the national police were the ones who rescued him. That's what he said in the interviews from the very beginning until today."

Marlon Lengua also clings to seeing Neto in the hospital in the days after the rescue.

"I believe it was the reward for everything that was done," Lengua says. "My eyes watered. It was the happiness to know that all the effort was for something. 'Thank you very much,' he told me. When I arrived at the hospital, his father and brother also hugged me in a surprising way with a kind of affection that a person knows is sincere. They did not want to let me go.

"It was really difficult, the first month. I did not sleep calmly. When I did my job every day and I heard a plane, I thought immediately it was going to fall. It was really difficult to think of all the people I met there dead. I still see them."

Saroli still sees his father, too, in the pictures he has dotted around the house. But more recently, he's tried to see his father when he looks in the mirror. That's because he just had a child of his own, and that is how he can carry on the good name and the good work of Caio Junior.

"He had a life with a lot of obligations, yet he was always present," Saroli says. "He was charismatic. He was always close. He participated in my decisions. For us, we lived our whole lives around my dad. We all moved with him, so as you can imagine, that is what our identity was. That was taken, and although he may be gone, he set the example for me to follow in every way, and we chose to remember him through his decency and his love.

"But what happened, it's unbelievable. The crash was greed. I believe there's a scam behind it to recommend the company to football teams, but still we don't know."

After the pause of that night last November, such unknowns have provided the choking frustration.

Air crash investigators did, however, know what had happened within days, despite the reports searching for positives in the media. Initially, some major newspapers even celebrated the captain, suggesting he was circling to dump fuel due to another issue when the Avro RJ doesn't even have a fuel dump facility.

It was clawing for a hero in the plane when there were just victims. On the ground, that quickly became clear, as there wasn't the tell-tale smell of jet fuel. The fact the engines hadn't ingested the hillside showed they weren't running at the time of the collision.

Andre Penner/Associated Press

If they are the cold and surgical facts around how this happened, though, some still await the reason why. Maybe it doesn't exist, and that's just a way to put off dealing with it. Maybe there's no more to it than penny-pinching, which in itself might be impossible to deal with.


All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.