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 British 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 violent deaths in Britain.
“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.
Britain’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB), which recovered the body, said that bad weather in the busy shipping thoroughfare meant it was unable to recover the plane and as a result was closing down the operation.
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 Ibbotson.
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.
After search operations were suspended in the days after the plane went missing, a shipwreck hunter hired by Sala’s family, with funds donated by football stars such as Lionel Messi, found the wreckage on Sunday.
The 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.
Accident report expected
“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.”
But it added: “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 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.
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.
According to BBC Wales, Nantes have given Cardiff a 10-day ultimatum over the first payment of between five and six million euros.
A source at Cardiff told British media that the Welsh club will honour the contract but only once they have clarified “all the facts”. Cardiff are said to be “surprised” with the timing of the demand so soon after the tragedy.
The plane, a Piper PA-46 Malibu, vanished from radar around 20 kilometres (12 miles) north of Guernsey, with pilot 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, Mearns added.
Earlier this week the footballer’s father, Horacio Sala, acknowledged that there was no prospect of finding his son alive.
“There’s no longer any hope,” he told Fox Sports.