Widow of Chapeco plane crash victim rebuilds life by taking his job

The crash killed 71 people last month, including most of Brazil's Chapecoense soccer team. Photograph:( Getty )

AFP Chapec? - State of Santa Catarina, Brazil Apr 26, 2017, 07.34 AM (IST)

When Sirli Freitas lost her husband in the air crash that wiped out Brazil's Chapecoense football club, she had to rebuild her life. So she took his old job.

Cleberson Silva had been the press secretary for what was then known as Brazilian football's fairy tale success story, a small club that had come up through the ranks to the verge of international success.

Then on November 29, the 39-year-old was aboard the plane carrying the team to a regional championship game in Medellin, Colombia. The plane crashed just short of its destination, killing 71 people -- the first team and much of the staff.

A week later, with the city of Chapeco numbed by mourning, Sirli Freitas, 33, went to the club to get her husband's belongings. 

Waiting for her was an unexpected offer: why not take his job?

Freitas, who is raising her eight-and three-year-old children alone now, had worked as a photo-journalist at the local newspaper Diario Catarinense, so she understood the work.

But where her husband's days had been spent fielding queries from reporters about the plucky, rising club, Freitas now had to deal with requests about the tragedy from around the world.

"At times, I still can't believe it's all happened," she said. "It was so painful that it seems it wasn't true."

Painful voyages

Working at Chapecoense is part of Freitas's rebuilding process, but it's also helping put the club back together.

Still, taking her husband's old role -- a job he loved -- means constant painful memories.

"Every day has its complicated moments because I remember him," she said. "I am doing what he did and I miss him tremendously. I think about how he would act if he were here and that helps me to overcome the difficult moments."

Among the hardest times was the club's return to international competition in Peru in March -- with promoted academy players, team members who hadn't taken the fatal flight and a roster of players on loan. That meant flying.

"I suffered a lot during that flight, I couldn't stop thinking of what happened in Colombia," she said.

She hopes it will get easier.

This Tuesday, the team left for Montevideo to play the Uruguayan team Nacional in the Copa Libertadores, the region's top tournament, on Thursday.

Freitas stayed behind, but the most emotional journey will come on May 10: a return to Medellin to play Atletico Nacional, the same team Chapecoense had been set to play when the crash took place. Freitas will be with them.

The survivors and bereaved have a special status in Chapeco.

Six people miraculously lived through the crash, three of them players. Goalkeeper Jakson Follmann had to have a leg amputated.

Despite the generally tight-knit community around the club, some have criticised the new management and at least five people have filed lawsuits seeking damages, according to local media reports.

But Freitas is focusing on her personal battles. "I have two children to look after and I need to make them believe that their mother is fine, that she's strong. It's them I worry about."