LONDON • The search for missing Cardiff City player Emiliano Sala should no longer be considered a rescue operation, said the chief officer of Channel Islands Air Search last night.
"It's getting to that stage now," he said in a telephone interview. "There's a lot of people still on the hunt," said John Fitzgerald, adding that hopes of finding survivors are "very much plucking at straws".
A joint French and British search effort resumed yesterday with airplanes, helicopters and ships.
Sala, who signed for Cardiff on Saturday from French Ligue 1 club Nantes for a club-record fee of £15 million (S$26.4 million), was flying to the Welsh capital on a single-engine Piper PA-46 Malibu aircraft when air traffic controllers lost contact with it off the English Channel island of Guernsey.
Floating objects have since been found in the Channel and, at press time, the operation was ongoing.
The Argentinian Sala reportedly sent a voicemail message to his father saying he was frightened the plane was about to break up.
In a transcript of the call, quoted by the Mirror, he said: "I'm here on a plane that looks like it's about to fall apart, and I'm going to Cardiff…
"If in an hour and a half you have no news from me, I don't know if they are going to send someone to look for me because they cannot find me. But you know… Dad, how scared am I!"
He sent a similar audio message in Spanish to a group of friends on WhatsApp, said Diego Rolan, a Uruguayan footballer who told a radio station in his home country that he was among the recipients of the message.
The man speaking sounded calm, asking his friends how they are doing, looking forward to joining his new team, complaining of being tired, and even yawning. But he also returned several times to his concern about the flight.
Hundreds of fans, many in tears, also gathered in Nantes' city centre on Tuesday evening for an emotional tribute to the missing player, laying bouquets of yellow flowers while chanting Sala's name.
His former club said in a statement the tribute was a spontaneous initiative by fans before thanking "supporters and the entire football family for the numerous expressions of support".
Amid the outpouring of grief, many have wondered why Sala was travelling in a propeller plane, but Cardiff told news website Wales Online they had offered their new striker a commercial flight.
"We spoke to the player and asked him if he wanted us to make arrangements for his flight to have been commercial," club chairman Mehmet Dalman said.
"He declined. I can't tell you who arranged the flight because I don't know at this stage, but it wasn't Cardiff."
Dalman added Bluebirds manager Neil Warnock was in a "state of shock".
He said: "Neil is human and he's affected as much as we all are. At the moment, there's a vacuum of information , it's very unsettling.
"We're still praying, we still have prayers. Cardiff will be involved with the investigation. We won't leave a single stone unturned until we have all the facts."
According to the BBC, Cardiff have no plans to rearrange their next match, a Premier League trip to Arsenal next Tuesday.
NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE GUARDIAN