President Michel Temer attends the arrival ceremony of the Chapecoense players’ coffins. Photograph: Andre Penner/AP
The bodies of the football team killed when their plane crashed in Colombia earlier this week have been returned to Brazil.
Many of the 71 victims were players or supporters of the Chapecoense football team, which had chartered the plane after reaching the final of the Copa Sudamericana being held in Medellin, Colombia.
Brazilian president Michel Temer presided over a brief ceremony at Chapeco airport in Santa Catarina state in southern Brazil, where he posthumously decorated 50 of the victims and offered condolences to their families.
“This event, as you know, shook the whole country,” Temer said. “This rain must be St Peter crying.”
The ceremony came ahead of a wake at the team’s stadium that is expected to be attended by about 100,000 fans – roughly half the city’s population – and Fifa president Gianni Infantino.
Giant banners on the field, decorated with white flowers, bore the logos of Chapecoense and Atlético Nacional, the Colombian team that held a memorial ceremony on Wednesday instead of hosting the cup final.
A huge black banner had been hung on the outer wall of the Chapecoense stadium. “We looked for one word to thank all the kindness and we found many”, it read, followed by the words “thank you” in more than a dozen languages.
Fans said the wake would provide closure for a town whose excitement at their team reaching the cup final – compared to Leicester City winning the Premier League – had turned to anguish.
Thousands queued overnight to enter the stadium, draped with banners and the team’s green and white, when doors opened on Saturday morning.
“I will only really believe it when we see the coffins and the families,” said fan Pamela Lopes, 29. “At first there was commotion, but now a great sadness has set in.”
Cleusa Eichner, 52, was wary about seeing the players’ coffins: “I can still see those players entering with their kids in their arms. I’d rather keep that image in my head, hold on to that happiness, than replace it with nothing.”
The pilot of the BAe 146 plane, operated by Bolivian charter company LaMia, had radioed to say it was running out of fuel before smashing into a hillside outside Medellin.
Only six people survived, including just three members of the Chapecoense team.
The plane was forced to circle outside Medellin for 16 minutes while another aircraft made an emergency landing. Reports in Brazil that it had barely enough fuel for the flight after refuelling in Bolivia have outraged relatives of the victims.
Bolivian president Evo Morales pledged to take “drastic measures” to determine what caused the crash. Bolivia has suspended LaMia’s operating licence and replaced the national aviation authority’s management.
Brazilian media reported that an official at Bolivia’s aviation agency had raised concerns about the flight plan. He urged the company to come up with an alternative route because the journey of four hours and 22 minutes was the same length as the plane’s maximum flight range.