As officials called the chance of finding survivors “slim,” the search was suspended Tuesday for a small airplane that disappeared over the English Channel Monday night and was carrying an Argentine soccer player to Wales to join his new Premier League club.
The French civil aviation authority confirmed that Emiliano Sala, 28, was one of two people aboard the plane en route from Nantes to Cardiff when it disappeared from radar, hours after he had said farewell to his teammates on the Nantes team. Strong winds and rough seas had forced British and French authorities to suspend their search of an area known for shipwrecks and strong currents overnight. “So far over 1,000 square miles have been searched by a total of five aircraft and two lifeboats,” police on the island of Guernsey told the Associated Press.
John Fitzgerald, chief officer of the Channel Islands Air Search, told BBC News that the likelihood of surviving the crash was “reducing very rapidly” because of “the sea temperatures and sea conditions.” “The sea temperatures are very, very cold and just sap the core temperature of anybody in the water very, very quickly,” he said.
Sala’s father, Horacio, told Argentine TV channel C5N (via Reuters) that he first heard his son’s plane was missing from a friend. “I didn’t know anything. I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I’m desperate. I hope everything goes well.”
Calling the chances of survival “slim,” Guernsey Police tweeted that “a number of floating objects” had been seen in the water during a 15-hour search, but said “we have been unable to confirm whether any of these are from the missing aircraft.” At 5 p.m. local time, the police indicated that search and rescue operations had suspended until sunrise Wednesday. Police planned no further updates Tuesday and optimism about the weather forecast for Wednesday was dimming. “The weather forecast for [Wednesday] is not as good as today, so we will be making a very difficult decision in the morning whether we can carry on with the search or not,” Guernsey harbor master Captain David Barker told the BBC.
Ken Choo, the executive director and CEO of the Cardiff City Football Club, said the team would “call off training with the thoughts of the squad, management staff and the entire club with Emiliano and the pilot.” He added, “We continue to pray for positive news.”
The search continued Tuesday morning. “Today the sea is much calmer, although visibility was good, it is now deteriorating,” Guernsey Police tweeted. “UK authorities have been calling airfields on the south coast to see if it landed there. So far we have no confirmation it did. Search continues. Decision at sunset about overnight search.”
An alert went out to the British Coastguard at 8:23 p.m. local time Monday from air traffic control in Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands, after contact with the Piper PA-46 was lost, according to Guernsey police. The single-engine aircraft, according to the Piper Aircraft website, can accommodate one pilot and five passengers and was flying at 5,000 feet when it asked Jersey air traffic control for permission to descend to 2,300. It had left Nantes at 7:15 p.m. local time.
A Channel Islands Air Search spokeswoman told the BBC that red flares reportedly were sighted during a lifeboat and helicopter search, but “nothing of significance was found.” The plane dropped off radar near the Casquets lighthouse, which, according to the BBC, is known as the site of many shipwrecks. It is about eight miles northwest of Alderney.
No distress call was received Monday, Barker told the BBC. “It’s far easier to see something on the surface in daylight,” he said. “We are looking for any traces of an aircraft, a life raft, persons in the water, life jackets.”
The area, according to BBC Guernsey reporter John Fernandez, is known for strong currents and for being the sight of “a number of shipwrecks. The search area is absolutely massive at the moment. They’re searching a number of different spots at the moment. They’re not sure whereabouts this plane might have gone down.”
In last tweet Monday, he said goodbye to his Nantes teammates.
Last week, Sala, the fifth highest scorer in the French league, signed with Cardiff for a club-record $19 million through 2022 and his transfer was awaiting international clearance. Nantes’s game against Entente Sannois in the French Cup on Wednesday was postponed until Sunday “following the disappearance of the plane of former player Emiliano Sala.” Arnaud Wajdzik, a Nantes-based journalist for Ouest France, told BBC Wales News Online that Nantes residents and fans plan to hold a vigil Tuesday evening in the town square.
“I do not have the words to express what I feel,” former France defender Willy Sagnol, who coached Sala when he played at Bordeaux, told L’Equipe. “He’s such a good guy, Emiliano, kind and generous, and just a worker. I do not have the words. It’s all too early.”
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