By PETER PRENGAMAN and MARCELO SOUSA DA SILVA, Associated Press
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — A fire tore through the sleeping quarters of a development league for one of Brazil’s most popular professional soccer clubs on Friday, killing 10 people who were most likely players and injuring three others, authorities said.
Firefighters were called in just after 5 a.m. local time to battle a blaze at the sprawling Ninho de Urubu training ground of the Flamengo soccer club in Rio de Janeiro’s western region, a fire official told The Associated Press.
Beatriz Busch, the public health secretary for the state of Rio de Janeiro, said two of the injured were in stable condition and one was in critical condition.
“Those who died were athletes,” she said, adding that their identities had not been released and the cause of the fire was unknown.
“Flamengo is in mourning” the team posted on its Twitter account.
Messages to Flamengo officials were not immediately answered.
The three injured were 14, 15 and 16 years old, said the fire official, who asked his name not be used due to his agency’s rules.
Overhead images captured by an AP drone showed a charred area with smoke emerging.
Outside the complex, an AP reporter saw two ambulances and a fire truck enter. The facility was closed, and no officials had come out to address media.
Family members, friends and neighbors were gathering outside in hopes of getting information. Several gathered in a circle to pray.
Jefferson Rodrigues, who runs a small inn near the club, said he had reached a 15-year-old player he had befriended.
“I am very happy. I just spoke to Caix Suarez and he is alive,” said Rodrigues, adding that the youth told him he ran when he saw the flames in the morning. “He lost his phone, and all of his things, but the important thing is he is alive.”
Joao Pedro da Cruz, a 16-year-old player in the Flamengo youth league, told G1 news portal that he decided not to stay the night at the facility Thursday because the team wasn’t going to train on Friday. Instead, he went to a friend’s house.
“The majority of them (the team) stayed, my friends stayed (at the facility),” he said. “Today I woke up and heard this terrible news.”
Like many professional clubs in soccer-crazed Brazil, Flamengo has a youth development program for promising young players in their early teens. Many players, particularly those who live outside of Rio de Janeiro, stay at the facilities while training.
The dream of many youths in Latin America’s largest nation, winner of five World Cup titles, is to make it into the ranks of professional soccer. The development leagues identify promising players at a young age, working with them as they grow through their teenage years.
The best of those eventually play for Flamengo and several other teams across Brazil.
Flamengo is arguably Brazil’s most famous club, with an estimated 40 million fans nationwide. Supporters are so attached to their academy team that players have a motto for them: “Flamengo makes legends at home.”
Among the most famous to come through the club are Zico, a former No. 10 on Brazil’s national team; top goal-scorer Adriano, who rose to fame at Inter Milan; and current Real Madrid star Vinicius, Jr., who not long ago was living in the structure destroyed by the fire.
As news of the fire broke, several teams and players expressed their condolences on Twitter.
“We are extremely sad and shaken by the news of the fire,” tweeted Chapecoense, a team in southern Brazil that lost 22 players in a plane crash in 2016.
Associated Press reporter Mauricio Savarese contributed to this report from Madrid.