CHAPECO, Brazil – This Brazilian hometown of the soccer team whose dream season ended in tragedy this week prepared Friday for the sad return of so many whose lives were cut short on an Andes mountainside, hanging origami figures of peace in the team's green and white colors from the fence of the local soccer stadium.
As the bodies of the victims killed in the plane crash began the journey home Friday, gravediggers finished preparing the ground at cemeteries in the small city of Chapeco.
A memorial service was planned for Saturday in the southern Brazilian city that was home to the Chapecoense soccer club, which was on its way to the finals of one of South America's most prestigious tournaments when the plane went down in Colombia on Monday, killing all but six of the 77 people on board.
Three flights carrying the bodies of 50 players, coaches, officials and journalists covering the team were to depart from Colombia late Friday. Another plane carrying other Brazilian victims is headed to Sao Paulo. Brazilian President Michel Temer is scheduled to greet the arriving cargo planes at the airport in Chapeco on Saturday, but is not expected at the memorial.
In preparation for the service, residents hung more than 3,000 green and white origami pieces fashioned into the figure of a crane — birds that are considered a symbol of peace — onto the metal fence at the team's Arena Conda stadium.
Gravediggers were preparing the ground at two cemeteries, where 13 people associated with the club were to be buried Saturday. The rest of the victims, including 19 players, will be transported to other cities around Brazil.
The loss has been felt acutely in Chapeco, which was captivated by the meteoric rise and improbable success of their hometown team in soccer-crazed Brazil. Some 100,000 people were expected at the stadium on Saturday — about half of the city's population.
The staff at the Jardim do Eden cemetery, where some of the bodies were to be buried, said they were used to the business of death, but this time it felt different.
"We bury two people every day. I've done this job for a long time, but this is different," said Dirceu Correa, caretaker of the cemetery. "It is a tragedy for the families, for the club, and also for us because we are a part of the city."
In an emotional news conference Friday, the mother of one of the victims paused in between answering questions from reporters to ask one herself.
"How are you in the press doing after losing so many colleagues?" asked Ilaides Padilha, mother of the goalkeeper Danilo, referring to the 20 journalists who were killed in the crash.
The stunned reporter, Guido Nunes of Sportv, started crying, and Padilha hugged him. "We're all in this together," she said.
Marissol Dias, who volunteers for the charity that organized the placing of the origami crane figures at the stadium, said she was overwhelmed by the community's response.
"This comes from a Japanese legend that says if you make 1,000 of these, a wish will be granted," she said. "Our community did much more than we asked."
The team's small stadium can hold only about 20,000 people, so the rest of the 100,000 visitors expected Saturday will be able to watch the ceremony on screens set up outside.
Amanda Machado, the fiancee of the defender known simply as Dener, visited the stadium on Friday, which was supposed to be their wedding day.
"I chose to be here at the stadium because at least I feel closer to him," she said.
Associated Press producer Renata Brito contributed to this report from Chapeco, Brazil.