Chapecoense, the scrappy Brazilian football club that was devastated by an airplane crash in the mountains of Colombia last year, made an emotional return to the scene of the disaster on Tuesday.
Among the three players who survived the tragedy and made the return journey was goalkeeper Jackson Follmann, who lost part of his leg in the accident and had to be helped by rescuers up a still-scarred hillside after being pulled from the wreckage of a chartered plane.
A Brazilian flag and makeshift altar full of crosses and flowers stood where the plane’s fuselage broke into two a short distance from Medellin’s international airport, killing all but six of 77 people aboard, including 19 players.
“I had to see this for myself to know what happened,” Follmann said, standing in heavy rainfall that provided a somber tone to the visit. “It was a miracle of God.”
Later, residents of nearby La Union filled the small town’s plaza for a heartfelt tribute to the team, providing the survivors with flowers and even some personal objects salvaged from the crash site.
“Chape,” as the team is known, traveled to Medellin for the second leg of the Recopa Sudamericana, which features the winners of Latin America’s top two club tournaments.
It’s a relatively minor club tournament, but one that has taken on added interest this year as Chape faces off against Atletico Nacional, with which it will be forever twinned in tragedy. Chapecoense won the first leg in Brazil 2-1.
The team was traveling to Medellin almost six months ago to face Atletico in the Copa Sudamericana finals when its chartered plane from Bolivia crashed after having run out of gas just a few minutes before landing.
The three survivors from the team – Follmann, Alan Ruschel and Helio Zampier Neto – are expected to attend the match as spectators along with a Brazilian journalist whose life was also spared. The father of the Bolivian pilot and airline’s owner who died in the crash also visited the crash site.
Follman said he hopes to one day play Paralympics soccer while Ruschel holds out hope of rejoining Chapecoense.
“The doctors say that the recovery has been miraculous,” Ruschel told the newspaper El Colombiano de Medellin. “I’m now training on a level with my teammates, and in 20 days or so I hope to be able to play again in an official game. It seems incredible, but it’s true.”
Earlier Tuesday the players visited the hospital where they received it and exchanged hugs with their one-time caregivers.
“For us and for the hospital, it is very emotional to have you back,” said Dr. Ferney Alexander, the chief medical authority at the San Vicente Foundation. “The work we did in November and December resulted in where you are now.”