Portland: A body recovered by British investigators from the submerged wreckage of a plane that went down in the Channel has been identified as that of footballer Emiliano Sala, police said on Thursday.
The Argentine striker’s body was first spotted by rescuers with a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) on Sunday close to where the plane went missing near the island of Guernsey.
It was recovered on Wednesday and brought to the Isle of Portland in southern England on board the Geo Ocean III offshore supply ship on Thursday for formal identification by coroners, who investigate deaths in Britain.
The light aircraft was carrying the 28-year-old footballer to his new Premier League team Cardiff City when it disappeared near Guernsey on January 21, along with 59-year-old pilot David Ibbotson.
“The body brought to Portland Port today has been formally identified… as that of professional footballer Emiliano Sala,” police in Dorset, the county where the body was taken, said on Twitter.
“The families of Mr Sala and pilot David Ibbotson have been updated. Our thoughts remain with them all,” police said.
After his body was identified, retired Argentinian football star Gabriel Batistuta paid tribute to the talented young player whose disappearance had prompted an outpouring of grief.
“What sadness, this is the worst news. Rest in peace warrior,” he tweeted.
Argentinian President Mauricio Macri also offered his condolences to Sala’s family following the “painful news”. “We are with you,” he added.
While the small Argentinian town of Progreso, where the footballer lived for most of his childhood, was left “very affected”.
“Since we found out, it’s all anyone can talk about,” said local restaurant owner Oscar Heymo, a friend of Sala’s father Horacio. “He was very much loved and admired by all.”
– ‘Dignified’ recovery –
Sala’s disappearance prompted an outpouring of grief across the footballing world, including at his former club Nantes in France where the plane was flying from.
The initial search operations to trace the plane were suspended in the days after it went missing, but a shipwreck hunter hired by Sala’s family with funds donated by football stars such as Lionel Messi found the wreckage.
Britain’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB), then co-ordinated the recovery and the rescued body was taken to Portland Harbour earlier on Thursday and was seen being stretchered into a silver van.
“In challenging conditions, the AAIB and its specialist contractors successfully recovered the body previously seen amidst the wreckage,” the AAIB said Wednesday.
“The operation was carried out in as dignified a way as possible.”
The AAIB was unable to recover the plane due to bad weather and as a result was closing down the operation.
“The weather forecast is poor for the foreseeable future and so the difficult decision was taken to bring the overall operation to a close,” it said.
It said that extensive video footage captured by a remotely operated vehicle is expected to “provide valuable evidence for our safety investigation”, adding that it intends to publish an interim report on the accident later this month.
– Private appeal –
The plane, a Piper PA-46 Malibu, vanished from radar around 20 kilometres (12 miles) north of Guernsey, with Ibbotson the only other person aboard.
After the official rescue team gave up their search, saying there was little chance of finding anyone alive, Sala’s family raised more than 370,000 euros ($422,000) in an online campaign to pay for a private hunt.
“Had that not happened, I don’t think anybody would have searched for the plane,” shipwreck hunter David Mearns, whose private company found the plane, told AFP.
The discovery of two seat cushions on the French coast last week revealed that the plane had broken apart, he added.
Sala had been flying in to join up with his new club Cardiff City in what was the most expensive signing in the Welsh club’s history.
Nantes have consulted lawyers to explore legal options to ensure Cardiff pays the transfer fee for Sala, a source close to the French club revealed on Wednesday.
According to the source, the first instalment of the 17-million-euro ($19.3 million) deal for the Argentine striker has yet to be paid, despite the transfer being finalised before the accident.
Earlier this week the footballer’s father, Horacio, acknowledged that there was no prospect of finding his son alive.
“There’s no longer any hope,” he told Fox Sports.