Survivors gather as Chape plays first game since fatal crash
CHAPECO: Slowly and steadily, Rafael Henzel will climb into the cramped space to broadcast Saturday's friendly match for Brazilian club Chapecoense, the first since nearly the entire team was killed in an air crash almost two months ago.
Only six of the 77 passengers survived — and Henzel was one of them.
"The stairway at the Arena Conda is very steep, but I have extra motivation to be in that stadium again and see players wearing our shirt, the fans. It won't be that stairway that will stop me," Henzel told The Associated Press after his morning show on radio Oeste Capital.
Henzel has worked at Chapecoense matches since 2012, and is the voice of the team from the remote, southern Brazilian city of Chapeco. After 20 days in a hospital, seven broken ribs, multiple scars — one over his right eye— and worrisome pneumonia, Henzel went back to work at the radio station just over a week ago.
Now he's making his second return — what he calls "Rafael 2.0" — in the match against Brazilian league champion Palmeiras, preparing to once again get behind the microphone at the tiny stadium.
His left foot is in a cast, but that won't stop him.
"When I woke up at the crash site, I became aware of what had happened," he said, recalling the crash. "Initially, I thought I was dreaming but then, shortly after, you start to realize that the plane had crashed."
Three Chapecoense players survived — 19 were killed — when the plane slammed into the Andes mountains as it headed to the city of Medellin to face Colombian team Atletico Nacional in the Copa Sudamericana final — the No. 2 club tournament in South America.
All three hope to play again, in one fashion or another. And all three are expected for Chape's debut on Saturday.
Defender Neto, who spent more than 10 hours in the plane wreckage before being rescued, recently took his first steps without support.
He's already visited the club and will be an inspiration for Chape's new players in a busy season. Their 2017 commitments include defending their title in the Santa Catarina state league, keeping the team up in Brazil's first division, playing for the first time in the prestigious Copa Libertadores — the continent's No. 1 tournament — and fundraising in a pile of friendlies, including one against Barcelona.
"If I didn't believe I could recover, I will get depressed," Neto told reporters. "Doctors said I might return this year, but I don't know whether my knees are still up for it," Neto said in a press conference. "I will be here to give support to the players that come. It's not easy to represent all those who died, but I want to be fit to play so I can be more than a symbol. I want to make a real contribution."
Winger Alan Ruschel is the player in best shape for a return. He expects to be back within six months, but no doctor says it will definitely happen.
"I will do all that I can to play again, and I will be patient to get there," Ruschel said. In tears, he said he has no recollection of the accident.
"I was in the front seats, then I changed with a friend of ours that is now gone," he said. "I am pretty sure that that made me survive, because our goalkeeper Jakson Follmann was next to me and he also escaped. It was Follmann who told me to sit next to him, so I guess he also saved my life. I will have to live with this feeling forever."
Goalie Follmann will not play for Chape again. He had part of his right leg amputated and is still going through minor surgery. He is considering becoming a Paralympian and a member of Chape's staff.
The goalie has avoided talking about the future, but is not as gloomy as many about his current state.
"I choose life over the leg," he told doctors during his recovery. "We will manage this easily."