"There's nothing better than being back here to thank these people."
Chapecoense, the scrappy Brazilian soccer club that was devastated by an airplane crash in the mountains of Colombia in 2016, made an emotional return to the scene of the disaster Tuesday.
A delegation from the club, including three players who survived the accident, visited the hospital in Medellin where they received emergency treatment after being pulled from the wreckage of a chartered plane that crashed into a mountainside, killing 71 of the 77 on the flight, including 19 players.
"There's nothing better than being back here to thank these people," said defender Alan Ruschel, who is making a comeback from spinal injuries.
"Chape," as the team is known, received a heartfelt welcome and military honours when it arrived Monday to Medellin for the second leg of the Recopa Sudamericana, which features the winners of Latin America's top two club tournaments.
"It's a relatively minor club tournament, but one that has taken on added interest in 2017 as Chape faces off against Atletico Nacional, with which it will be forever twinned in tragedy.
Chapecoense won the first leg in Brazil 2-1.
The team was traveling to Medellin almost six months ago to face Atletico in the Copa Sudamericana finals when its chartered plane from Bolivia crashed into a mountainside after having run out of gas just a few minutes before landing.
The three survivors from the team Ruschel, Jackson Follman and Helio Zampier Neto are expected to attend the match as spectators along with a Brazilian journalist whose life was also spared.
First responders who worked at the crash site are expected to give the team some of the personal belongings they rescued.
Follman, a goalkeeper, lost part of his right leg and will never play again, but Ruschel holds out hope of doing so.
"The doctors say that the recovery has been miraculous,"
Ruschel told the newspaper El Colombiano de Medellin.
"I'm now training on a level with my teammates, and in 20 days or so I hope to be able to play again in an official game. It seems incredible, but it's true."
At the hospital Tuesday, it was all hugs and tears as the survivors and their one-time caregivers were reunited.
"For us and for the hospital, it is very emotional to have you back," said Dr. Ferney Alexander, the chief medical authority at the San Vicente Foundation.
"The work we did in November and December resulted in where you are now."