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Brazil's Chapecoense team almost wiped out in horror jet crash

By Luis Benavides

The death toll from the Colombian plane crash tragedy last night dropped to 71 from 75, as authorities said four fewer people were on board the aircraft than originally thought.

Officials said the four did not board the flight in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, but were listed on the plane's passenger list.

None of them were players for the Brazilian football team that were being carried to the biggest match in their history when it crashed into a Colombian hillside and broke into pieces.

Six of the 81 people on board survived.

The British Aerospace 146 short-haul plane, operated by a charter airline with roots in Venezuela, declared an emergency and lost radar contact just before 10pm local time on Monday because of an electrical failure, according to Colombia's aviation agency.

The aircraft, which had departed from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, was carrying the Chapecoense team from southern Brazil for the first leg of a two-game Copa Sudamericana final against Atletico Nacional of Medellin.

"What was supposed to be a celebration has turned into a tragedy," Medellin mayor Federico Gutierrez said from the search and rescue command centre.

As the depth of what is Colombia's deadliest air tragedy in two decades sank in, sportsmanship prevailed and Atletico Nacional asked that the title of the continent's second-most important club championship be given to its rival, whose fairytale run had electrified football-crazy Brazil.

Expressions of grief poured in from all over the football world.

South America's federation cancelled all scheduled matches in a show of solidarity, Real Madrid's squad interrupted its training for a minute of silence, and Argentina legend Diego Maradona sent his condolences to the victims' families over Facebook.

Rescuers working through the night were initially heartened after pulling three passengers alive from the wreckage.

However, as the hours passed, heavy rainfall and low visibility grounded helicopters and slowed efforts to reach the crash site.

At daybreak dozens of bodies scattered across a muddy mountainside were collected into white bags.

They were then loaded onto several Black Hawk helicopters, which had to perform a tricky manoeuvre to land on the crest of the Andes Mountains.

The plane's fuselage appeared to have broken into two upon hitting the mountain top, with the nose facing downwards into a steep valley.

Images broadcast on local television showed three passengers on stretchers and connected to an IV arriving at a hospital in ambulances.

Among the survivors, Chapecoense defender Alan Ruschel was in the most serious condition, and was later transported to another facility to undergo surgery for a spinal fracture.

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