CHAPECO, Brazil (AP) — On a rainy Saturday that only accentuated the grief, 20,000 people filled a tiny stadium under umbrellas and plastic ponchos to say goodbye to members of the Chapecoense soccer club who died in a plane crash.
The accident Monday in the Colombian Andes claimed most of the team’s players and staff as it headed to the finals of one of Latin America’s most important club tournaments.
Seventy-one of the 77 people on board died, including 19 players on the team.
Rain-soaked mourners jammed the modest stadium with four or five times that outside — about half the population of the southern Brazilian city of 200,000 — to pay homage to a modest club that nearly reached the pinnacle of Latin American soccer.
Others lined the roads as the coffins were driven in a procession from the airport to the stadium memorial.
“I’ve been here since early morning,” said Chaiane Lorenzetti, a 19-year-old who said she worked at a local supermarket frequented by club players and officials. “I’ll never see some of my clients again. It’s a devastating day that will last forever.”
Ahead of the memorial, the bodies of many of the dead, all in coffins, arrived Saturday morning in Chapeco in deep southern Brazil. Several cargo planes flew overnight from Colombia.
The coffins were received by soldiers waiting in formation on the tarmac. Under heavy rain, they removed one at a time, wheeling them through standing puddles to vehicles to transport them to the stadium.
Brazilian President Michel Temer was among dignitaries at the airport, applauding as each coffin passed by.
The stadium memorial comes after a heart-wrenching week for residents and family members stunned by the crash.
Hundreds of banners, flags and hand-written messages hung around the stadium — in Portuguese, Spanish and English.
A tent, with places for the coffins underneath, stretched across the width of the soccer field. On top of the white tent, a sentence from the club’s anthem was written for all to read.
“In happiness and in the most difficult hours,” it said. “You are always a winner.”
One sign in Spanish was aimed at Colombian officials who helped with the rescue — six people survived, including three players — and the details of returning the remains to Brazil.
“Colombia, Gracias Por Todos,” it read, or “Colombia, Thanks For All” in English.
“They deserve a farewell of champions,” said Tatiana Bruno, who stood inside the stadium in the rain, wearing a plastic poncho to stay dry.
Staff at the Jardim do Eden cemetery, where some of the victims will be buried, said on Friday they were used to the business of death; but not this kind tragedy.
“We bury two people every day. I’ve done this job for a long time, but this is different,” said Dirceu Correa, caretaker of the cemetery. “It is a tragedy for the families, for the club, and also for us because we are a part of the city.”
Gravediggers prepared for interments at two cemeteries where 13 people associated with the club will be buried. The bodies of the rest, including the 19 players, will be transported later to other cities around Brazil for burial.
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