In a driving rain, the small Brazilian city of Chapeco held a massive funeral on Saturday for its football team, tragically wiped out in a plane crash in Colombia.
The bodies of 50 players, coaches and staff from the Chapecoense Real club were taken on a funeral procession from the airport to Conda Arena, the stadium where just 10 days ago the team were thrilling their fans.
Draped in the club’s green and white flag, the coffins slowly wound their way through the city, as family and fans braved the weather to watch with a mix of sobs and cheers.
Soldiers unloaded the coffins onto the pitch when they arrived at the packed stadium, where the city was expecting a crowd of some 100,000 people -- half its population.
Chapeco is in mourning for 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 slammed into the mountains outside Medellin on Monday night, killing 71 people.
There was imposing silence at the stadium as the funeral cortege arrived, broken only by cheers of “Champions!” whenever the screens showed images of the procession.
Soaking wet from the rain, his eyes red from crying, mechanic Rui Alonso Thomas watched the procession with his 10-year-old daughter, who was draped in the Chapecoense banner.
“We would have been here rain or shine. Our dream was finally becoming reality. It was so close. There’s just no explaining it,” he said, choking back tears.
“Chapeco will take a long time to get over this. But I plan to keep coming to the stadium.”
“Chapecoense is in our hearts. It’s our family,” said Patricia Carraro, a 32-year-old cashier.
Earlier, fireworks lit up the sky over the stadium as two Brazilian Air Force planes transporting the team’s coffins touched down at the southern city’s airport.
The arrival was delayed by an outpouring of emotion at a refueling stop along the way, when locals in the Amazon city of Manaus flocked to the airport to pay tribute to the crash victims.
Brazilian President Michel Temer met the planes upon arrival and attended the memorial alongside the coach of the Brazilian national team, Tite, and FIFA chief Gianni Infantino.
‘My son was all passion’
The crash has left the football world in mourning.
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 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,” said the goalkeeper’s mother, Ilaide Padilha.
The stadium has capacity for 19,000 people, so 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 team.
The other plane crash victims -- Brazilians, Bolivians, a Paraguayan and a Venezuelan -- were flown home Thursday and Friday.
Six people miraculously survived the crash, though some with major injuries.
One surviving crew member, Erwin Tumiri, was flown home Saturday to Bolivia and was taken in a wheelchair for medical checks.
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.