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After deadly fires, Chile mourns ex-president Pinera

Draped in the Chilean flag, and carried on a carriage drawn by uniformed officers, Pinera's coffin was loaded into an air force plane in the southern city of Valdivia (RAUL BRAVO)
Draped in the Chilean flag, and carried on a carriage drawn by uniformed officers, Pinera's coffin was loaded into an air force plane in the southern city of Valdivia (RAUL BRAVO)

Three days of mourning and funeral ceremonies got underway Wednesday for Chile's ex-president Sebastian Pinera, a day after he drowned when the helicopter he was piloting crashed into a lake.

The accident came as the South American country was already reeling from vicious wildfires that left at least 131 dead in the coastal Valparaiso region and scorched entire communities.

Pinera's family had been enjoying their summer holidays in Lago Ranco when the helicopter plunged into the waters of the immense lake surrounded by forest some 920 kilometers (570 miles) south of Santiago.

An autopsy established the cause of Pinera's death as "asphyxiation due to submersion," said regional prosecutor Tatiana Esquivel.

Draped in the Chilean flag, and carried on a carriage drawn by uniformed officers, Pinera's coffin was loaded into an air force plane in the southern city of Valdivia, accompanied by his wife, four children and some of his nine grandchildren.

The coffin later arrived in Santiago, where Pinera's family were received by his leftist successor, President Gabriel Boric, before being escorted to Congress.

The public will be able to pay tribute to Pinera as he lies in state until Thursday and a main funeral mass is planned for Friday. He will be buried in a private family ceremony.

Hundreds of supporters gathered outside Congress holding flags and photos of Pinera.

"We held out hope that he would become president of Chile again. I voted for him twice and without a doubt would have done so again," said Francisca Narvaez, a 41-year-old nurse.

"The way he died is very unfair."

- 'He worked tirelessly' -

The 74-year-old billionaire, who returned the right wing to power after casting off the baggage of former dictator Augusto Pinochet, served two non-consecutive terms in office.

"He was a democrat from the first hour, and he genuinely sought what he believed was best for the country," said Boric, who took over from Pinera in March 2022.

Pinera's first term between 2010 and 2014 saw him oversee the reconstruction after a major earthquake, as well as the gripping rescue of 33 miners trapped in the Atacama Desert.

His second term, however, was fraught with trouble as he faced social uprising, the Covid-19 pandemic and the worst economic crisis in decades.

US President Joe Biden, who added his voice to the tributes pouring in, praised him for "helping Chile achieve one of the fastest vaccination rates in the world."

"President Pinera was committed to forging a more secure and prosperous future for Chile.  He worked tirelessly to grow Chile's economy and advocate for his nation on the world stage," Biden said in a statement.

While at his holiday home in Lago Ranco, Pinera called a meeting on Monday with his former ministers to discuss "how to contribute" amid the wildfires ravaging the country, ex-minister Karla Rubilar told local media.

An avid helicopter pilot, Pinera had taken off after lunch with his friends, accompanied by his sister and two other passengers on a rainy day, with wind and considerable cloud cover, the prosecutor's office said.

The plane crashed shortly after takeoff, and Pinera was the only passenger unable to escape from the aircraft, sinking with it into the lake.

Firefighter Ricardo Gonzalez, who retrieved his body, said Pinera was found free of his seatbelt, 28 meters (92 feet) deep.

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