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Thousands mourn for 71 victims

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19 soccer players on the brink of greatness among those who perished.

CHAPECO, Brazil (AP) – Thousands squeezed into Chapeco’s cathedral and even more packed a stadium to mourn the death of 71 people in a plane crash, 19 of them members of the Chapecoense club who had been on the brink of soccer greatness.

“To lose (almost) all of them in such a tragic way, totally destroyed our city and each one of us,” Carla Vilembrini said late Tuesday, standing outside Santo Antonio Cathedral. She was dressed like so many others – in the club’s green and white jerseys.

Chapecoense’s fantasy season ended on a muddy Colombian mountainside late Monday when a chartered aircraft crashed south of Medellin. Only six of the 77 passengers survived, three of them players.

The club was having the best season in its 43-year history, heading to the first of two matches in the final of the Copa Sudamericana, the continent’s No. 2 club tournament.

Distraught residents of this southern Brazilian city of 200,000 people, an agribusiness center near the Argentina border, wandered the streets around the stadium – known as Arena Conda – in stunned silence.

“The city is very quiet,” businessman Cecilio Hans said. “People will only believe once the bodies start to arrive.”

On social media, haunting last photos showed the smiling players boarding the flight to Colombia for their match with Atletico Nacional.

In one photo, the team celebrated a last-minute save by goalkeeper Danilo only a week ago against the Argentine club San Lorenzo. The save guaranteed Chapecoense a spot in the final – and ultimately cost Danilo his life in the crash.

“I can’t still believe it,” Alan Heinz said inside the stadium, his body pressed against the fence that separates fans from the field. This time the field was filled by a religious service and prayers for the dead.

“I was preparing for the best day of my life, and now I don’t know what my life will be after this,” he said.

As recently as 2009, the club known as Chape was playing in Brazil’s fourth division, but it won promotion to the top league in 2014 for the first time since the 1970s.

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