On November 28, 2016, a tragic event was etched into the history of football. On that day, the plane carrying, among others, the squad of the Brazilian football club Chapecoense crashed in the vicinity of Medellin, Colombia. The team was en route to face the first leg of the 2016 Copa Sudamericana final against Colombia’s Atletico Nacional.
The flight, LaMia Flight 2933 (LMI2933), was a charter flight that had departed from Bolivia, where the now-defunct company was headquartered, bound for Jose Maria Cordova Airport serving Medellin. The aircraft carried 77 people, 68 passengers, and 9 crew members. Only 6 survived, including 3 footballers, 2 flight attendants, and 1 journalist. Subsequent investigations determined that the cause of the catastrophe was human error on the part of the pilots, who failed to report their fuel shortage until it was too late.
The accident claimed the lives of almost the entire professional squad, coaching staff, and several executives. Today, seven years later, Chapecoense has bounced back, and although currently playing in the second division of Brazilian football, the support from fans has turned the club into a symbol of resilience and recovery from adversity.
2016: Chapecoense’s Pinnacle
The Brazilian club, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, had always been a modest club within its country’s league. However, in 2016, it was experiencing its peak. The accident occurred precisely as they were traveling to Colombia to play in the Copa Sudamericana final. It’s worth recalling that, out of deference to their opponent, the Colombian club Atlético Nacional, the Brazilians were declared champions of that competition by the South American Football Confederation (Conmebol).
However, from 2017 onwards, the club had to rebuild after losing 19 of its players. The seven years since then have been a time of ups and downs, with relegations and promotions to and from the top tier. Although the team is currently in Serie B, the fans’ support and the football world’s esteem have favored the club’s recovery and ensured its continuity.
Tragedy Unleashed a Wave of Solidarity
The exact location where the plane crashed was Cerro Gordo (now called Cerro Chapecoense), in the municipality of La Unión, just over 50 kilometers south of Medellin, the flight’s final destination. The shocking images and the high number of fatalities triggered a wave of solidarity in Colombia that still resonates in the country.
This was remembered by Andrés Noreña, a journalist from Canal Caracol, who covered the news in 2016 for Colombian television. “Seven years ago today, I had one of the toughest and saddest workdays of my life,” the communicator wrote on his social media, commemorating the tragedy’s anniversary. In another tweet, Noreña acknowledged suffering a nervous breakdown when he finished his work, realizing the magnitude of what had happened.
Anonymous citizens who participated in the rescue
Likewise, civilians who participated in the painful rescue efforts also wanted to remember the victims. Ordinary people like Johan Ramírez, who was only 15 years old at the time. Alongside his father, he was among the first to rush to the crash site, as the plane had crashed barely 500 meters from their home. It later became known that father and son helped rescue the six survivors.
A few years later, Johan Ramírez gave an interview to the newspaper El Colombiano, speaking of his tough experience. “What struck me the most about the accident, and what I’ve never been able to forget, was the moment after we rescued the first survivor. I went back to the hill and found another survivor. When we saw him, a doctor told us he had very few signs of life and to hurry with him. We put him on a stretcher and when we were about 10 or 15 meters away, sadly, he passed away. That stuck with me a lot; I learned to value even a few seconds of life. That memory, I wish I could erase it from my mind,” said the young rescuer in 2020.
The Subsequent Lives of the Survivors
The names of the six fortunate individuals who survived the crash are players Alan Ruschel, Hélio Zampier Neto, and Jakson Follmann; flight attendant Ximena Suárez; crew member Erwin Tumiri, and journalist Rafael Henzel, who passed away in 2019 from a heart attack while playing football, at the age of 45.
Of the three footballers, only Alan Ruschel, at 34, continues to play professionally. The full-back underwent two spinal surgeries but recovered swiftly. He has played for many teams in these seven years but has always maintained his connection with Chapecoense. Ruschel had the good fortune to participate with his club in the Joan Gamper tournament in August 2017, invited by FC Barcelona, in a game where he performed admirably. Today, he plays for EC Juventude, the club where he began his professional career in 2008. Juventude has managed to ascend to the top division this year after spending a season in Serie B.
Jakson Follmann was not as fortunate; although he survived the accident, his severe injuries led to the amputation of his right leg, forcing him to retire from football. Since 2017, he has worked as a sports commentator for Fox Sports Brazil. Hélio Zampier Neto did not return to professional football and only played a few friendly matches. He officially retired in 2019, wearing the Chapecoense jersey.
Professionals Returning to the Skies
Erwin Tumiri, a Bolivian aircraft mechanic, fared the best from the tragedy. He returned to work in aeronautics and, interestingly, managed to survive another disaster in early 2021: a traffic accident on the road between Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, where the bus he was traveling in plummeted over a 150-meter precipice. The accident claimed 21 lives; Tumiri was not among them.
Ximena Suárez was a flight attendant on LaMia’s flight, also of Bolivian nationality. She was the sole female survivor and the last person to leave the hospital in Medellin where she was recovering from her injuries. She returned to her job as a flight attendant for AmasZonas and, four years ago, wrote a book about her experiences titled “Returning to the Skies.”