Emiliano Sala's family plead with rescuers to continue their search

Soccer star's plane missing over English Channel

By CNN'S CLAUDIA REBAZA IN LONDON AND ESTEBAN CAMPANELA IN BUENOS AIRES CONTRIBUTED TO THIS STORY.
Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

(CNN) - The family of missing Argentine soccer player Emiliano Sala have pleaded with rescuers to continue their search for the plane in which he was traveling.

Police on Wednesday suspended the operation to find the aircraft, which disappeared over the English Channel on Monday, saying that a decision on whether to resume the search would be made in the morning. The single-engine Piper Malibu was taking Sala from Nantes in northern France to Cardiff in Wales, the home of his new club, Cardiff City.

READ: Emiliano Sala's 'last goodbye' tweet gathers added poignancy

"After an intensive search using multiple aircraft and one lifeboat over the last nine hours, we have found no trace of the missing plane," Guernsey Police tweeted. "A decision about whether to recommence will be taken early tomorrow morning," the statement added.

At a press conference in Argentina, family spokesperson Martin Molteni told reporters that it is "essential the search continues" and that the family wanted rescuers to "use all means possible" to find out what happened.

Sala, 28, was on his way to begin training with Cardiff City after his reported £15 million ($19.3 million) move to the English Premier League club from Nantes.

Sala's message from the plane

It emerged on Wednesday that Sala sent a WhatsApp audio message to a group of friends from on board the plane.

It was unclear exactly when Sala sent the message but he describes being tired and can be heard yawning. Sala appears to joke about the aircraft, telling his friends in a deadpan tone: "I'm here on the plane and it looks like it's going to fall down in pieces." He then says that training with Cardiff would start the next day.

Near the end of the recording, he appears to make another joke, saying: "If in an hour and a half you don't have news from me... I don't know if they would send someone to look for me because they won't find me, but you will know. Dude, I'm so scared."

Throughout the message, his voice is monotone and there is no indication that his comments about the state of the plane are anything but dark humor. Sala's family spokesperson confirmed to reporters in Argentina that the message was genuine and expressed dismay that it had been made public.

No trace of aircraft

Rescuers have been searching for the plane since it disappeared from radar near the Channel Islands just before 8:30 p.m. local time (3:30 p.m. ET) Monday. The plane had requested descent on passing Guernsey but disappeared from radar at about 2,300 feet.

Channel Islands Air Search spokeswoman Alison Robins said Wednesday that the search had become a "recovery operation."

Police said the plane was being flown by David Ibbotson, identified in UK media as an experienced pilot and member of the British Parachute Association. Sala was the only passenger.

The search has so far covered 280 square miles, using aircraft from the Channel Islands, France and the UK, authorities said.

Police said their operation was based on four possibilities: That the pilot and Sala landed safely but had not made contact; that they had been picked up by a passing ship; that the aircraft may have landed on water and the pair made it onto a life raft which was on board the plane; or that the aircraft had broken up on contact with the water.

Satellite imagery and mobile phone data was also being reviewed in an attempt to find the plane, police said.

Capt. David Barker, harbormaster for the state of Guernsey, told reporters Tuesday there had been no distress call from the plane, saying "it was simply lost from radar and from communications."

A stellar season

Sala had scored 12 league goals for Nantes this season. The Argentine would have likely been available to make his debut for Cardiff, which is in the relegation zone having struggled to score goals during its return to the English top flight, in next week's Premier League match at Arsenal.

Born in Santa Fe, Argentina, Sala established his reputation in France, scoring 42 goals for Nantes since joining from Bordeaux in 2015 and particularly impressed this season.

In his most recent tweet Monday, just before he was due to fly, Sala posted a photo of himself with the Nantes FC team and the caption: "the last one, goodbye."

Nantes said Thursday's training session would be open to up to 300 members of the public. A portrait of the player has been placed in a street in the city, and would also soon be placed outside the stadium, to give well-wishers an opportunity to place flowers, candles and messages of support near it.

In a statement, the French club said: "The hours are long, FC Nantes continues to pray for Emiliano, just like his extraordinary determination ... The FC Nanes family is more than ever united in this event."

PSG and France forward Kylian Mbappe, World Cup-winning midfielder Andres Iniesta and Monaco manager Thierry Henry were among the current and former footballers to post messages of support on social media.

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