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Bolivia shuts down Colombia crash airline

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Rescue teams recover of the bodies from the LAMIA airlines charter flight that crashed in the mountains of Cerro Gordo, municipality of La Union, Colombia, on November 29, 2016 carrying members of the Brazilian football team Chapecoense Real © AFP/File / Raul Arboleda

Medellín, Colombia, Dec 1 – The Bolivian charter airline whose plane crashed killing 71 people in Colombia was shut down Thursday, as shock grew over a harrowing recording of the pilot’s final minutes without fuel.

Bolivia said it suspended charter company LAMIA’s permit and ordered an investigation into its operations.

It also suspended the executive staff of the civil aviation authority and the airports administrator for the duration of the probe.

The government did not explain the decision.

But it came as investigators examined pilot error and air traffic control problems as possible factors in Monday night’s crash.

The disaster killed most of Brazilian football club Chapecoense Real and 20 journalists traveling with them to a championship match.

Fans of Brazil’s Chapecoense football club take part in a tribute to their players killed in a plane crash © AFP / DOUGLAS MAGNO

LAMIA, which specializes in flying Latin American football teams, has ferried local clubs and national sides around the region, with players including superstar Lionel Messi.

Investigators are trying to piece together the last moments of the doomed flight, which slammed into the mountains outside Medellin with 77 people on board — six of whom miraculously survived.

– ‘Fuel emergency’ –

Details of the jet’s terrifying end emerged in an audio recording aired by Colombian media in which the pilot radioed frantically that he was out of fuel.

People participate in a tribute to the players of Brazilian team Chapecoense killed in a plane crash in the Colombian mountains © AFP / LUIS ACOSTA

In the recording, pilot Miguel Quiroga contacts the control tower seeking priority to land.

The operator tells him he will have to wait seven minutes for another plane to land first.

“We have a fuel emergency, ma’am, that’s why I am asking you for it at once,” the pilot replies.

The timeline was not immediately clear, but shortly after the pilot radios: “Ma’am, Lima-Mike-India 2933 is in total failure, total electrical failure, without fuel.”

The operator responds: “Runway clear and expect rain on the runway Lima-Mike-India 2933. Firefighters alerted.”

The pilot is heard asking: “Vectors, ma’am, vectors to the runway.” Vectors is the term for the navigation service provided to planes by air traffic control.

The LAMIA airlines charter crash killed most of Chapecoense’s squad and 20 journalists traveling with them to the finals of South America’s second-largest club tournament © AFP / Raul Arboleda

She gives him directions and asks his altitude.

“Nine thousand feet, ma’am. Vectors! Vectors!”

Those were Quiroga’s last words to the control tower.

– Controller threatened –

The air traffic controller said she had since received threats, blaming people “ignorant” of safety regulations.

In a statement, she defended her actions that night.

“I can say with absolute certainty that for my part I did everything humanly possible and technically required to keep those (people) alive,” she said.

There were 72 passengers and nine crew on board the LAMIA plane when it crashed in Colombia © AFP / Raul Arboleda

Colombia’s civil aeronautics agency said the time sequence of the tape was “inexact,” and had no comment on the content of the recording.

But the agency’s air safety chief, Freddy Bonilla, confirmed that the plane was out of fuel at the moment of impact.

Bonilla said the plane had disregarded international rules on fuel reserves.

Investigators said it would take at least six months to analyze the plane’s black box recorders and reach a conclusion.

– Bodies identified –

Investigators finished identifying the victims’ bodies Thursday.

A representative for the funeral homes preparing them said they would be sent home to Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela and Paraguay late Thursday or early Friday.

Investigators finished identifying the victims of the Colombia plane crash December 1, 2016 © STR/AFP / RAUL ARBOLEDA

At the San Vicente funeral home, victims’ families gathered in mourning.

Roberto Di Marche, a cousin of late Chapecoense director Nilson Folle Junior, arrived in the team’s jersey, then removed it and left it by his cousin’s body.

“He was like a son, a brother to me. And now he’s like this, in a coffin. It’s terrible,” he said, his voice trembling.

– Football tributes –

Cinderella-story club Chapecoense had been traveling to what would have been the biggest match in its history, the finals of South America’s second-largest club tournament, the Copa Sudamericana.

Tearful tributes to the club were held Wednesday evening, at the time the match was to have been played, in Medellin and the team’s hometown, Chapeco in southern Brazil.

A minute’s silence for Chapecoense will be held before every Champions League and Europa League game next week, UEFA said.

– Caring for survivors –

Surviving crew members Ximena Suarez and Erwin Tumiri of Bolivia could be released from hospital Thursday, an official said.

Chapecoense defender Alan Ruschel was in critical but stable condition in intensive care after having back surgery.

Journalist Rafael Henzel and player Helio Neto were listed as stable.

Goalkeeper Jakson Follmann was meanwhile set to undergo surgery again, after having his right leg amputated.

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