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Crowdfunding campaign enables high-tech search for missing pro soccer player

Emiliano Sala in January, 2019 in Cardiff, Wales. Cardiff City/Getty Images

On January 21, professional soccer player Emiliano Sala was flying on a single-engine aircraft from Nantes in France to the U.K. for a new start with Premier League team Cardiff City. But his plane never arrived.

The small Piper Malibu aircraft is believed to have gone down off the French coast, about halfway along the 300-mile route between Nantes and Cardiff. Sala was the only passenger on board.

An official search for 28-year-old Sala and pilot Dave Ibbotson was halted on January 24, but pleas from Sala’s Argentinian family, as well as from fellow Argentinian soccer stars Lionel Messi and Sergio Agüero, prompted the launch of a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign to raise cash for a private effort to find the pair and discover the truth about what happened to the flight.

The funds, currently at around $400,000, have been used to hire the services of underwater search specialist Blue Water Recoveries, led by American marine scientist and oceanographer David Mearns.

Mearns has a proven track record for locating long-forgotten shipwrecks far down on the seabed, and even has a Guinness World Record for the deepest shipwreck discovery at more than 5,500 meters. In this latest operation, the team is focusing on an area around 25 nautical square miles where the water is about 65 meters deep.

Following several days of logistical planning, a Blue Water Recoveries ship will this week begin a painstaking search using high-resolution sonar technology, as well as a remotely operated underwater vehicle to comb the seabed in search of the missing aircraft.

Speaking to the BBC on Monday, Mearns said that beside the harsh winter weather, one of the main challenges will be dealing with passing tankers and cargo ships in the busy shipping area. He also noted how the aircraft could have drifted for some distance before it sank, and may even be moving along the seabed, shifted by strong currents.

Despite the hurdles, Mearns is adamant the operation has an excellent chance of locating the aircraft.

“I believe we have very good information about where this plane is probably located … I think if we have a run of 10 days of clear weather, I’d say it’s virtually certain [that we can find it].”

Blue Water Recoveries will be mindful of the failed ocean search conducted by another company for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 that went missing in 2014, but the far smaller search zone and much shallower waters in this particular case offer it a far better chance of locating the plane.

But striking a cautious note, Mearns added: “We have to manage people’s expectations, we cannot guarantee we’ll find this.”

With the difficult operation about to begin, Emiliano Sala’s family, who landed in the U.K. on Monday, January 28, as well as relatives of Dave Ibbotson, are all hoping Mearns and his team will be able to help bring this tragic story to a close.

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