Leicester City’s Thai billionaire boss was among five people killed when his helicopter crashed and burst into flames in the Premier League side’s soccer stadium parking lot moments after taking off from the pitch, the club said on Sunday.
A stream of fans already fearing the worst had laid out flowers, soccer scarves and Buddhist prayers outside the grounds after Saturday’s accident in tribute to Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha – the man they credit for an against-all-odds Premiership victory in 2016.
“The world has lost a great man,” the club said in a statement.
“Leicester City was a family under his leadership. It is as a family that we will grieve his passing and maintain the pursuit of a vision for the club that is now his legacy,” it said.
A book of condolence will be opened at the stadium from Tuesday and the team postponed its fixture against Southampton.
“Everyone at the Club has been truly touched by the remarkable response of the football family, whose thoughtful messages of support and solidarity have been deeply appreciated at this difficult time,” the statement said.
Police named the four other victims as Nursara Suknamai and Kaveporn Punpare, two members of Vichai’s staff, pilot Eric Swaffer and passenger Izabela Roza Lechowicz.
Vichai, 60, the owner of Thailand’s King Power duty-free empire, was a regular at matches who used to fly to and from home games.
He and the four other victims boarded the blue craft, which took off from the middle of the pitch once the stadium had emptied after Saturday’s 1-1 draw with West Ham.
Witnesses said the helicopter appeared to develop a mechanical problem in its rear propeller shortly after takeoff.
Images showed orange balls of flame engulfing the wreckage in the car park at King Power Stadium – the scene of unbridled jubilation after Leicester’s Premier League victory two years ago.
A witness told Sky News the helicopter spun out of control after clearing the roof of the stadium before steadying itself and crashing into the parking area and away from the packed media center nearby.
Sky Sports said the helicopter took off from the pitch but developed problems shortly afterward with its tail rotor.
Freelance photographer Ryan Brown, who was covering the match, told BBC Radio 5 Live that he saw the helicopter rise out of the stadium before it crashed.
“Literally the engine stopped and I turned around, and it made a bit of a whirring noise. It turned silent, blades started spinning and then there was a big bang,” he said.
He said he saw “a huge fireball” when he ran to the scene.
Prayers and tributes
Prayers and tributes poured in from across Britain for the jovial man many credited with bringing glory to the central English city with the miracle-making club.
“He’s put Leicester on the map,” supporter Cathy Dann, 55, told Agence France-Presse. “He’s made us big.”
A steady stream of grieving fans laid down soccer scarves and shirts outside the home fans’ entrance as aviation experts picked through small pieces of wreckage scattered on the stadium’s edge.
Among the tributes was an image of Ganesh – a Hindu god also seen in Thai Buddhist temples.
A minute’s silence was observed before the whistle of Sunday’s Premier League matches.
“It is a family business and they have instilled this sense of family not just throughout the club but into the city as well,” Andrew Hulley, the team’s chaplain for the past seven years, told AFP.
As expressions of concern poured in from around the soccer world, England legend Gary Lineker, a former Leicester player and host of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Match of the Day, tweeted: “That was the most difficult @BBCMOTD I’ve ever hosted… A terrible tragedy. Heartbreaking.”
Leicester players Jamie Vardy and Harry Maguire both tweeted praying-hands emojis and West Ham defender Pablo Zabaleta, who also played in Saturday’s game, tweeted: “My thoughts and prayers are with all those involved in the helicopter accident at Leicester City.”
Nualphan Lamsam or Madam Pang, an influential figure in Thai soccer who manages the national women’s team, sent “moral support to Vichai and family” in a post on Facebook.
Vichai bought Leicester City in 2010 and became chairman the following February, pouring millions into the team and becoming a beloved figure in the club and the city, a feat not always achieved by the Premier League’s foreign owners.
“Thoughts and prayers with all, particularly owners who’ve done so much for Club and our City,” Leicester Mayor Peter Soulsby tweeted.
It was under Vichai’s ownership that Leicester crafted one of the biggest fairytales in English soccer history by winning the 2015-16 Premier League, having started the season as 5,000-1 outsiders for the title.
Vichai made major investments in the club after his purchase, returning them to England’s Premier League from the second-tier Championship in 2014.
They initially seemed outclassed by richer and more established clubs from London, Liverpool and Manchester, languishing at the very bottom of the table for most of the 2014-15 season.
The Foxes, as the team are nicknamed, then engineered what fans now fondly refer to as the “Great Escape,” winning seven of their last nine matches.
They ended up finishing 14th, securing themselves another season in Europe’s richest league in 2015-16.
But not even their most devout fans could have imagined what happened next.
Vardy, signed from non-league Fleetwood Town, scored in 11 consecutive matches, propelling the men in blue to a title without parallel in Premier League history.
The success also qualified them for the first time for the lucrative Champions League, the pinnacle of European soccer played by the continent’s most successful sides, including Barcelona and Real Madrid.
There, Leicester City defied the odds yet again, winning their group before eventually losing their quarter-final 2-1 over two legs to Atletico Madrid.
– with reporting from Agence France-Presse