SANTIAGO - Chileans who lost teammates and friends when a plane carrying a professional football team crashed 53 years ago said Monday the surprise find of the wreckage had revived painful memories.
The LAN Airlines Douglas DC-3 was carrying much of first-tier side Green Cross' squad and coaches when it disappeared in the Andes mountains on April 3, 1961.
For those linked to the now-defunct club, that long-ago day was dragged back into the present when a group of climbers announced Sunday they had found the wreckage of the missing plane during a trek through a remote mountain area.
"Just imagine, I was supposed to be on that plane. I was supposed to have died on that flight," said Hector Toledo, a former Green Cross player who caught a different flight back to the capital Santiago from the team's away match in the city of Osorno.
The site where the trekkers say they found marked fuselage, bones and clothing is far from a different location where a LAN pilot said he had spotted the plane in the days after the crash and where army rescuers later claimed to have seen wreckage.
Ashes from that site were buried in a symbolic funeral for the victims, whose remains were never found.
"For me the discovery was a surprise, because I thought they had found it 53 years ago," said Toledo.
But the mountaineers said they were certain they had found the true wreckage after an exhaustive search that spanned two expeditions in two years: one in January 2014 and another late last month.
"We went back to the same area and we found the plane, after four days on horseback and two of climbing," one of the expedition leaders, tour operator Lower Lopez, told AFP.
The trekkers have refused to disclose the exact location of their find, saying they fear the crash site could be desecrated. Lopez said it was located at an altitude of about 3,200 meters (10,000 feet), 70 kilometers (45 miles) north of the other site.
'Close a chapter'
The group plans to return to the site with victims' relatives.
"They want to close a chapter in their lives. Some of them were children and never got to know their families," he said.
The 24 victims included eight players for Green Cross, coach Arnaldo Vasquez, part of his staff and match officials.
The team was one of the most important on the country's football scene at the time.
Among the players killed was star forward Eliseo Mourino, who played in the 1958 World Cup for his native Argentina.
The remainder of the Green Cross squad arrived safe and sound on a separate flight.
The club tried to carry on after the tragedy, but finally folded in 1965, merging its remnants with another team, Deportes Temuco.
"We never imagined they were going to find the wreckage of this unfortunate accident. This brings back a lot of memories of our dear old club," said Gerardo Contreras, the last president of Green Cross.
The accident ocurred 11 years before another famous aviation tragedy in the Chilean Andes, the crash of a Uruguayan air force plane carrying 45 people including the members of a rugby team.
That accident is the subject of the 1993 film "Alive" starring Ethan Hawke and the book on which it was based.