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Zambia Air Disaster: Recollections of the Men Who Feared the Fatal Flight

“The spirit of the 1993 team will always be there for Zambia,” Kalusha Bwalya, Zambia’s former football captain, is reflecting on the day that changed his life forever.

On April 27, 1993, a military aircraft taking 18 of his team-mates and their coach to a World Cup qualifier against Senegal crashed shortly after refueling in Gabon. All 30 people aboard died.

Bwalya would have been on the plane, too, but for the fact that he was playing for PSV Eindhoven at the time. Being based in the Netherlands meant he made his own way to the match from Europe and ultimately saved his life — although it did not spare him from crushing, numbing grief.

“You couldn’t imagine the whole team you play with are not there anymore,” Bwalya tells The Athletic. “It didn’t feel real.”

Zambian football could have been broken by the dreadful events of that day nearly 31 years ago. Instead, in the year that followed, a new national team — captained by Bwalya — came within one match of reaching the 1994 World Cup and also made the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) final.

Against all the odds, an unfancied Zambia team went one better and won the 2012 AFCON final in Libreville — the city in Gabon where the doomed flight carrying the 1993 team had crashed minutes after taking off. A tragic story had come full circle.

Now, as the team known as The Copper Bullets prepare for their first game at an AFCON since 2015 tomorrow (Wednesday), this is the story of that plane crash and the team’s enduring legacy in their homeland and beyond.

It has been slightly forgotten now, amid the trauma of how their story ended, but that 1993 Zambia squad was widely hailed as one of the best the country had ever produced.

They harboured genuine hopes of reaching the World Cup finals for the first time and also lifting the AFCON trophy. Just two days before the plane crash, the team had travelled to Mauritius for an AFCON qualifier, thrashing their hosts 3-0 with Kelvin Mutale, a talented young striker, scoring a hat-trick.

Bwalya missed that match but planned to link up with the squad for their next game, an important World Cup qualifier against Senegal in Dakar, that county’s capital city.

That meeting never happened.

The squad had boarded a De Havilland Canada DHC-5D Buffalo twin-engined military aircraft, and the plan was for them to travel to Senegal, in west Africa, via stop-offs in Congo, Gabon and Ivory Coast.

After its second stop to refuel in Libreville, it took off from Leon-Mba International Airport. Two minutes later, it crashed just 2km (a little over a mile) from the coast, killing all five crew and the 25 passengers. According to the accident report, which was finally released in 2003, the right engine caught fire but the pilot shut down the still-functioning left engine, meaning the plane plunged into the Atlantic Ocean.

Gabon scrambled soldiers to lead the search for bodies but only 24 of the 30 were recovered, and just 13 positively identified — a grim task handed to Patrick Kangwa, vice-chairman of the Zambian Football Association’s technical committee.

Following the tragedy, Zambia’s President Frederick Chiluba, who was on a state visit to Uganda when he learnt the news, announced a week-long period of national mourning and a state funeral for the players, who were all later buried in ‘Heroes Acre’ close to the Independence Stadium, in capital city Lusaka.

It was not until May 2002, after a lengthy court battle, that families were awarded compensation of $4million (£3.1m).

Bwalya was one of four Zambia players with clubs in Europe — along with Charles Musonda, Johnson Bwalya (no relation) and Bennett Mulwanda Simfukwe — who were making their own way to the match in Senegal. He was on a morning jog at PSV’s training ground in Eindhoven when he received a call from the Zambia FA treasurer.

“He told me, ‘You have to delay your flight tomorrow’. I said ‘Why?’. He said, ‘Because there’s been an accident’. He said he thought there were some casualties.”

Bwalya then recalled turning on the news and watching a BBC report saying his Senegal-bound team-mates had all died in a plane crash and that there were no survivors. “In that moment, you don’t think that much,” he said. “You just think it should be a mistake. There was a lot of denial on the first day.”

He spent the rest of that day on the phone frantically trying to piece together what exactly had happened while worried family and friends called to find out if he was on the flight.

Back at PSV’s training ground the following day, he remembered his club colleagues trying to protect him by hiding the newspapers, with stories of the crash.

The next day, a Friday, Bwalya flew to Zambia via the UK. He said: “When we were taking off from London, the pilot said I should go to the front of the plane in the cockpit, so I could see the take-off and landing because he thought I would be very nervous to fly. I was in the cockpit in London when we took off.

When I got to Zambia, every time people saw you, they would cry. On Saturday, the plane that had gone to Gabon to collect all the bodies returned — the 30 people who died. When that plane came and landed, that was the first time it hit me and I realized I would never see the boys again.”

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