The search for Argentine soccer player Emiliano Sala and his pilot, both of whom went missing after their plane disappeared from radars over the English Channel, has moved from a rescue mission to a recovery operation, officials said Wednesday.
Guernsey police, who have been predominately in charge of the search, had been holding out hope the 28-year-old player had survived and made it on to a life raft after the plane landed in the water.
However, Channel Islands Air Search confirmed to reporters Wednesday the search was now a recovery operation, Sky News reported.
Three planes and a helicopter were involved in a search Wednesday that took responders through more than 280 square miles around the Channel Islands between France and Britain.
“There is as yet no trace today of the missing aircraft,” Guernsey police said on Twitter.
Earlier Wednesday, Guernsey harbor master Capt. David Barker said it was looking at four possibilities for the fate of the plane, including that it had landed on the water with Sala and the pilot making it onto a life raft known to be on board.
Among the other possibilities Barker offered were that they landed safely on the ground somewhere, were picked up by a passing ship after landing on the water or were floating at sea because the aircraft “broke upon contact with the water, leaving them in the sea.”
Police said the search is ongoing and they would reevaluate their plan at sunset, the BBC reported.
Chief officer of Channel Islands Air Search, John Fitzgerald, told the BBC “even the most fit person” could only survive a couple of hours in the water at this time of year.
“Sadly, I really don’t think, personally, there is any hope,” he said. “At this time of the year, the conditions out there are pretty horrendous if you are actually in the water.”
The Piper PA-46 plane disappeared from radar on Monday night near the island of Guernsey as it was flying from the French city of Nantes to Cardiff, where Sala was due to start playing for the city’s Premier League club. He had just signed a club record fee reported to be worth $19 million.
Local Argentina media reported Tuesday that Sala had voiced fears about the safety of the missing plane in a WhatsApp audio message he sent to friends while on board.
In the message, published by Argentine publication Ole and attributed to Sala, he is heard saying: “I am here in the plane that seems is about to fall to pieces…. I’m scared.”
His father, Horacio Sala, told reporters in his native Argentina: “The hours go by and it makes me think of the worst.”
“I just want them to find him,” he said.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Mehmet Dalman, the Cardiff City chairman, said Salad made the decision to travel via a private jet and “categorically that the plane had nothing to do with Cardiff City.”
“We were not involved in booking the plane. In fact, we are trying to ascertain ourselves exactly what did happen,” he said. “The club is looking into the matter and we want to find answers too.”
Amid growing tributes to the player – both in Cardiff and Nantes – his former soccer club changed its Twitter profile picture to a photo of the sticker and tweeted in French: “Wherever you are, we’re thinking of you.”
Cardiff’s next match against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday is expected to go ahead as planned.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.