MEDELLIN, Colombia, Nov 28 – For Colombian policeman Marlon Lengua, Brazilian football club Chapecoense was once just a hated rival in the 2016 regional championships.
But one night last year, the police lieutenant found himself up a mountain pulling Chapeco soccer player Helio Neto out of the wreckage of a crashed plane, saving his life.
It had been just a month since 24-year-old Lengua’s beloved Junior de Barranquilla team had been knocked out of the Copa Sudamericana by Chapecoense, an upstart from southern Brazil.
“Maybe I cursed him and said all sorts of things,” Lengua told AFP.
Just before 10:30 pm on November 28, Lengua was finishing his shift in La Ceja when he got the call that a plane had gone down in nearby Cerro El Gordo.
It was the plane flying the Chapecoense Football Club to Medellin to take on Atletico Nacional in the Copa finals — the biggest and most unexpected game in the Brazilian team’s history.
When the plane ran out of fuel and went down in inhospitable mountains near its destination, 71 of the 77 aboard died, including 19 players.
Lengua was one of those who rushed to the scene.
“I gave body and soul to try and help them,” he said.
– ‘One more!’ –
Lengua’s heroics became famous, earning him the title of the “Green Angel,” alongside a 15-year-old volunteer dubbed the “Boy Angel,” thanks to a documentary called “The Last Survivor,” which was made by another Colombian policeman.
It seemed that no one could live through the hell of a plane plunging out of the sky into a hillside, but a handful did and Lengua found the last one — the Chapecoense defender Neto.
Lengua first heard faint groans, then saw something “inflating.” It was Neto’s chest, covered in branches, still breathing.
The player was “totally destroyed” and his body was almost impossible to access.
“I found one more alive, come quickly!” Lengua remembers calling into his radio. He asked for a machete so that they could cut away the undergrowth.
In the rain, the hillside became a muddy nightmare, and the policeman and his companions fought for hours before finally managing to extricate the Brazilian.
The 31-year-old athlete slipped into a coma lasting 11 days. But the next time Lengua went to visit him in hospital, Neto was already looking much better.
“You saved me, thank you very much,” the player said, prompting the policeman to break into tears.
A year later, “it’s good with Helio, we keep in touch, but with his mother it’s even better,” Lengua said.
In fact, Neto’s mother Valeria Zampier sends him blessings by WhatsApp every start and finish to the day.