PARIS (Reuters) – Cardiff City’s new soccer star, Emiliano Sala, was on board a light aircraft that disappeared en route to the Welsh capital for his club debut, France’s civil aviation authority said on Tuesday.
Sala was flying from the French city of Nantes to Cardiff when the plane lost radar contact off the English Channel island of Guernsey late on Monday.
Rescue aircraft and boats had searched more than 1,000 square miles (2,590 square km) of sea for the single-engine Piper Malibu by midday on Tuesday, but “no trace of the missing aircraft had been found,” Guernsey police said.
The 28-year-old Argentine-born forward joined struggling Cardiff City from FC Nantes last week for a club record fee of about 17 million euros ($19 million).
Argentine newspaper Clarin published a voice message that Sala apparently sent to friends.
“We’re up in the plane and it seems it’s about to crash,” said the message, which Clarin said was verified by Sala’s father, Horacio Sala.
“If you have not heard anything from me in an hour and a half, I don’t know if they’re going to send someone to find me, because, you know, they’re not going to be able to,” the message said. “Dad. I’m really scared.”
Sala had played in France since 2012.
“We expected Emiliano to arrive last night into Cardiff and today was due to be his first day with the team,” club Chief Executive Ken Choo said in a statement. “We continue to pray for positive news.” Tuesday’s training session was called off.
“The management and the whole club are staying hopeful and the whole FC Nantes family is praying for Emiliano Sala and the other passengers to be found safe and sound,” Nantes said in a statement.
British authorities contacted airfields along the coast to check if the plane had made an unplanned landing, but there was no sign it had, Guernsey police said.
The plane had been cruising at 5,000 feet (1,525 m) when the pilot requested to descend to a lower altitude on passing Guernsey. It lost radar contact at 2,300 feet (700 m), the police said.
John Fitzgerald, chief executive of Channel Islands Air Search, said: “From what I gather, nothing has been seen as yet. If they are wearing the right dry suits or they got into a life raft, then the probability is not too bad.
“If they are in the water without any protection, the water is really too cold at the moment for any form of survival beyond an hour or so,” Fitzgerald told Sky TV.
Horacio Sala told Argentine TV channel C5N: “I didn’t know anything because I’m away from home, I’m a truck driver. A friend who saw it on TV told me. I’m in despair.”
Julio Muller, the mayor of Progreso, the small town in the farming province of Santa Fe where Sala grew up, told Clarin online: “The town is in shock. The only thing we were talking about was his transfer.”
Daniel Rivero, president of Sala’s first club, San Martin de Progreso, told radio LT9 he was “hoping for some kind of a miracle.”
Sala scored 12 goals for Nantes this season.
France’s soccer federation postponed Nantes’ French Cup last-32 game against Entente Sannois-Saint Gratien that had been scheduled for Wednesday.
Sala on Monday tweeted a photo of himself bidding farewell to his Nantes teammates, saying: “The last one. Ciao @FCNantes.”
Reporting by Richard Lough and Emmanuel Jarry; Additional reporting by Julie Carriat and Julien Pretot in Paris, Michael Holden in London and Walter Bianchi and Gabriel Burin in Buenos Aires; Writing by John Irish and Richard Lough; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Peter Cooney