By Brad Haynes
CHAPECO, Brazil (Reuters) - Brazil's president on Saturday bestowed honors on the victims of an air crash as Air Force troops unloaded 50 coffins flown in overnight from Colombia, site of the disaster this week that killed 71 people and wiped out a soccer team.
The Brazilian town of Chapeco, its streets wet with rain and buildings draped in the green of its Chapecoense club, turned out to receive the bodies and attend a wake at a local stadium for members of the team, which ascended from minor leagues in recent years to reach the championship of a South American tournament.
"This event, as you know, shook the whole country," President Michel Temer told reporters before making the short drive from the airfield to the rain-soaked stadium. "This rain must be St. Peter crying."
Monday's disaster shocked soccer fans the world over and plunged Brazil, South America's biggest nation, into mourning. The BAe146 regional airliner operated by Bolivian charter company LAMIA had radioed that it was running out of fuel before smashing into a hillside outside the Colombian city of Medellin.
Only six people survived, including just three members of the soccer side en route to the Copa Sudamericana final, the biggest game in its history. Earlier Saturday, bodies of eight journalists who were also among the victims arrived on a separate flight to Rio de Janeiro.
Reports in Brazilian media that the plane, which circled outside Medellin for 16 minutes while another aircraft made an emergency landing, had barely enough fuel for the flight from Bolivia have outraged relatives of the victims.
Bolivian President Evo Morales pledged to take "drastic measures" to determine what caused the crash. Bolivia has suspended LAMIA's operating license and replaced the national aviation authority's management.
In Chapeco, a small agricultural town in southern Brazil, dozens of fans kept vigil overnight in a drizzle at Chapecoense stadium, draped with banners and the team's green and white. By early afternoon Saturday, thousands had already gathered, cheering and applauding as the caskets began arriving by truck from the airfield.
An impromptu shrine swelled with fresh flowers and handmade posters and fans from other parts of Brazil joined locals, waving flags of other teams in solidarity. Some supporters, even as organizers piped somber music over loudspeakers, sang raucous soccer chants before turning more solemn when families of the victims began to take their places on the field.
Fans, some of whom consoled even an official warrior mascot visibly saddened beneath his mask, said the wake would provide closure for a town whose excitement at Wednesday night's cup final had turned to anguish.
"I will only really believe it when we see the coffins and the families," said Pamela Lopes, 29, who arrived for the vigil on Friday night. "At first there was commotion, but now a great sadness has set in."
As many as 100,000 fans, about half the city's population, were expected to attend, as was Gianni Infantino, president of world soccer governing body FIFA.
Temer, who flew in from the capital city of Brasília at dawn, presided over a brief ceremony at the airport, where he posthumously decorated the victims and offered condolences to their families. The president originally said he would not attend the wake, but later said he would indeed go.
A BANNER OF THANKS
In response to outpourings of support from soccer fans and clubs around the globe, Chapecoense hung a huge black banner from the outer wall of its stadium.
"We looked for one word to thank all the kindness and we found many," it read, followed by the words "thank you" in more than a dozen languages.
Workers laid out giant banners on the field, decorated with white flowers, carrying the logos of Chapecoense and Atletico Nacional, the Colombian team that held a memorial ceremony on Wednesday instead of hosting the Cup final.
Cleusa Eichner, 52, attended the stadium for the vigil - as she has so often for games - but was wary about seeing the players' caskets.
"I can still see those players entering with their kids in their arms. I'd rather keep that image in my head, hold on to that happiness, than replace it with nothing."
Brazilian media, citing an internal document, reported that an official at Bolivia's aviation agency had raised concerns about LAMIA's flight plan.
The official urged the airline to come up with an alternative route because the journey of four hours and 22 minutes was the same length as the plane's maximum flight range.
A Colombian civil aviation document seen by Reuters confirmed the flight time was set to be four hours and 22 minutes.
LAMIA Chief Executive Officer Gustavo Vargas said the plane had been correctly inspected before departure and should have had enough fuel for about 4-1/2 hours. He said it was the pilot's responsibility to decide whether to stop to refuel.
(Editing by Susan Thomas and Alistair Bell)