The Bolivian charter airline behind a plane crash that killed 71 people in Colombia was shut down Thursday, as shock grew over a harrowing recording of the pilot’s final minutes without fuel.
Bolivia said it had suspended charter company LAMIA’s permit and ordered an investigation into its operations.
It also sacked the executive staff of both the civil aviation authority and the airports administrator for the duration of the probe.
The government did not explain the decision.
But it came as investigators examine pilot error and air traffic control problems as possible factors in the Monday night crash, which killed most of Brazilian football club Chapecoense Real and 20 journalists traveling with them to a championship match.
LAMIA, which specializes in flying Latin American football teams, has ferried local clubs and national sides around the region, with players including superstar Lionel Messi.
Investigators are trying to piece together the last moments of the doomed flight, which slammed into the mountains outside Medellin with 77 people on board, six of whom miraculously survived.
Details of the jet’s terrifying end emerged in an audio recording aired by Colombian media in which the pilot radioed frantically that he was out of fuel.
In the recording, pilot Miguel Quiroga contacts the control tower seeking priority to land.
The operator tells him he will have to wait seven minutes for another plane to land first.
“We have a fuel emergency, ma’am, that’s why I am asking you for it at once, full stop,” the pilot replied.
The timeline was not immediately clear, but shortly after the pilot radioed: “Ma’am, Lima-Mike-India 2933 is in total failure, total electrical failure, without fuel.”
The operator responded: “Runway clear and expect rain on the runway Lima-Mike-India 2933. Firefighters alerted.”
The pilot is heard asking: “Vectors, ma’am, vectors to the runway.” Vectors is the term for the navigation service provided to planes by air traffic control.
The operator is heard giving him directions, and asking his altitude.
“Nine thousand feet, ma’am. Vectors! Vectors!”
Those were Quiroga’s last words to the control tower.
Colombia’s civil aeronautics agency said the time sequence of the tape was “inexact,” and had no comment on the content of the recording.
But the agency’s air safety chief, Freddy Bonilla, confirmed at a news conference that the plane was out of fuel at the moment of impact.
Bonilla said international rules require aircraft to maintain fuel in reserve when flying between airports, and that the LAMIA plane had failed to do so.
The British Aerospace 146 jet was scheduled to make a refueling stop in Bogota, but skipped the Colombian capital and headed straight for Medellin, reported Bolivian newspaper Pagina Siete, citing a representative of the airline.
Civil aviation director Alfredo Bocanegra said it would take investigators at least six months to analyze the black box recorders recovered from the plane and reach a conclusion on the cause of the crash.
A representative for the funeral homes preparing them said they would be sent home to Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela and Paraguay late Thursday or early Friday.
Cinderella-story club Chapecoense had been traveling to what would have been the biggest match in its history, the finals of South America’s second-largest club tournament, the Copa Sudamericana.
Tearful tributes to the club were held Wednesday evening, at the time the match was to have been played, in Medellin and the team’s hometown, Chapeco in southern Brazil.
Both stadiums were packed to capacity.
Mourners held candles in the air in Chapeco as the handful of remaining players from the team took to the pitch in tears.
A minute’s silence for Chapecoense will be held before every Champions League and Europa League game next week, UEFA said Thursday.
Bolivian crew members Ximena Suarez and Erwin Tumiri are expected to be released from hospital Thursday, an official said. Chapecoense defender Alan Ruschel was in critical but stable condition in intensive care after having back surgery.
Journalist Rafael Henzel and player Helio Neto were listed as stable. Goalkeeper Jakson Follmann was meanwhile set to undergo surgery again, after having his right leg amputated.