British investigators said on Monday they had spotted a body in the wreckage of a plane that disappeared in the Channel two weeks ago carrying Argentine footballer Emiliano Sala and his pilot.
Sala (28) was flying from France to join his new club, Premier League side Cardiff City, when the light aircraft disappeared on January 21, north of the island of Guernsey.
A wreck was found on the seabed on Sunday and closer inspection by a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) confirmed both that it was the missing plane, and that a body was inside.
"“Tragically, in video footage from the ROV, one occupant is visible amidst the wreckage. The AAIB is now considering the next steps, in consultation with the families of the pilot and passenger, and the police.”" - Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) statement.
The AAIB also released a grainy image showing a part of the fuselage with the aircraft registration. The depth indicated on the image was 67.7 metres (222 feet).
Sala's father Horacio spoke of his shock from his home in Progreso, Argentina, telling Cronica TV: "I can't believe it. It's a bad dream."
David Mearns said his private company, Blue Water Recoveries, had found the wreckage before calling in the AAIB to take a closer look.
Local police called off the search after a few days, saying it was very unlikely anyone would still be found alive.
But Sala's family launched a crowd-funding campaign for a private search, which raised over 300,000 euros.
They hired shipwreck hunter David Mearns, whose vessel used sonar equipment to identify the plane wreckage on Sunday morning within a few hours of starting the search.
"“They (rescuers) dove with their remotely operated vehicle, that’s a submersible with cameras and lights, and indeed confirmed that it was the plane. They saw the registration number and the biggest surprise to both of us was that most of the plane is there.” " - David Mearns, Shipwreck hunter
Sala was flying to Cardiff after transferring from French team Nantes in a 17 million euro ($19.3 million) move -- a record deal for the Welsh team.
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.
Another vessel, hired by the AAIB, then used its remotely operated vehicle to survey the seabed.
"Based on analysis of ROV video footage, the AAIB investigators on board the vessel concluded that the object is wreckage from the missing Piper Malibu aircraft," the AAIB said Monday.
"“This is about the best result we could have hoped for the families.”" - David Mearns, Shipwreck hunter
Suspected debris from the plane washed up on the Normandy coastline in France last Wednesday.
Top footballers were among more than 4,500 contributors to a crowdfunding page that raised over 300,000 euros ($343,000) to look for the wreckage.
Horacio was the only member of the Sala family to stay behind in Argentina as the others rushed to France and Guernsey to try to help with the search.
"“I talk to them (Sala’s sister and mother) every day. They kept saying days were going by, and that there had been zero word on Emiliano, or on the plane.” " - Horacio, Sala’s father.
The authorities will now resume control of the investigation, Mearns said.
The AAIB hired offshore supply ship Geo Ocean III for three days, starting on Sunday, but the search will be dependent on the weather.
At Cardiff's match against Bournemouth on Saturday, Sala's photograph appeared on the front cover of the matchday programme.
The two captains laid floral tributes on the halfway line before what the club called a "silent reflection".
Sala's name, in the Argentina colours, was also spelled out behind one of the goals as supporters held cards aloft.
Cardiff manager Neil Warnock said Sala would have been "really proud" of the team after they won 2-0 in their first home match since the plane vanished.
Programme notes, penned by owner Vincent Tan and the rest of the Bluebirds' board, said events had shaken "Cardiff City to its very core".
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