The bodies of 50 players, coaches and staff from a Brazilian football team tragically wiped out in a plane crash in Colombia arrived home Saturday for a massive funeral.
Fireworks lit up the sky over the stadium in Chapeco as two Brazilian Air Force planes transporting the team’s coffins touched down at the southern city’s airport in pouring rain.
The coffins, draped in the green flag of the club, Chapecoense Real, were unloaded onto a red carpet under military escort as victims’ family and friends watched with a mix of sobs and cheers.
The small city is holding a huge funeral to honor its little team that could, cut down at the height of its glory.
The unsung club was having a fairytale season until the charter plane flying it to the biggest match in its history ran out of fuel and smashed into the mountains outside Medellin on Monday night, killing 71 people.
The city is expecting some 100,000 people — half its population — to descend on Conda Arena, the stadium where just 10 days ago Chapecoense were thrilling their fans.
“I came to pay a final tribute from the fans to our team,” said architect Alexandre Bledin, 34, wearing the club’s jersey.
“I still can’t believe what happened.”
“Chapecoense is in our hearts, it’s our family,” said Patricia Carraro, a 32-year-old cashier.
The arrival was delayed by an outpouring of emotion along the way.
During a refueling stop in the Amazon city of Manaus, the coffins were consolidated from three planes onto two, for logistical reasons. They took off two hours late because local authorities and people showed up at the airport to pay tribute to the crash victims, the Air Force said.
In Chapeco, they will go on a funeral procession to the stadium and be laid out on the pitch.
Brazilian President Michel Temer met the planes on arrival and will attend the memorial at the stadium.
The coach of the Brazilian national team, Tite, and FIFA chief Gianni Infantino will also attend. The latter canceled a trip to Australia to be there.
‘My son was all passion’
The crash has left the football world in mourning.
Football legends Pele and Maradona as well as current superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have led tributes to Chapecoense in recent days.
A minute’s silence for the team will be held before every Champions League and Europa League game next week.
In Brazil, other clubs have offered Chapecoense players so it can continue competing.
Chapecoense had been on their way to Medellin for the finals of the Copa Sudamericana, South America’s second-biggest club tournament.
Inside their stadium, a single set of goal posts remains -- the one star goalkeeper Marcos Danilo Padilha, 31, defended in the semi-final match with a heroic last-minute save that sealed Chapecoense’s trip to the finals.
“It’s a horrible feeling, seeing this and knowing my son will arrive here in a coffin,” said his mother, Ilaide Padilha.
“It’s very sad remembering not only that stop (against Argentina’s San Lorenzo), but also... him running across the grass with his arms wide open. My son was all passion.”
The stadium has capacity for just 19,000 people.
Two giant screens were set up outside for the overflow crowd.
Tents were put up on the pitch for some 2,000 family members and close friends of the victims.
The other victims — Brazilians, Bolivians, a Paraguayan and a Venezuelan — were flown home Thursday and Friday.
Six people survived the crash, and are being treated in hospitals.
Chapecoense defender Alan Ruschel is in intensive care after back surgery. Backup goalkeeper Jakson Follmann has undergone multiple surgeries, including the amputation of his right leg.
Authorities are still investigating the crash.
Colombia’s civil aviation safety chief said the crew of the British Aerospace 146 jet had disregarded international rules on fuel reserves.
The Bolivia-based charter company, LAMIA, had its permit suspended Thursday.