Fears grew for charismatic Thai chairman of Leicester City on Sunday after a helicopter belonging to the billionaire crashed and burst into flames in the football stadium car park moments after taking off from the club’s pitch.
There was no confirmation whether London-based Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who frequently flies to and from Leicester’s home games by helicopter, was on board the aircraft which appeared to develop mechanical problems.
The BBC quoted a source and a witness as saying Vichai, and a group of other people boarded the blue helicopter from the centre-circle in the middle of the pitch once the stadium emptied after Saturday’s 1-1 draw with West Ham.
Leicester City said it only it was assisting police with a “major incident” and officials at King Power, Vichai’s duty-free shopping empire, were not commenting.
Images showed orange balls of flame engulfing the wreckage in the carpark at King Power Stadium — the scene of unbridled jubilation after Leicester’s against-all-odds Premier League title victory in 2016.
“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,” freelance photographer Ryan Brown told BBC Radio 5 Live.
None of the identities of the pilot or passengers was revealed, and there was also no information about whether anyone on the ground was injured.
“We are assisting Leicestershire Police and the emergency services in dealing with a major incident at King Power Stadium,” the club said in a statement.
“I can’t get to sleep over it, because it means a lot to me, he did a lot for the club,” Leicester City supporter Anti Patel told AFP.
– Prayers and disbelief –
Expressions of concern poured in from around the football world, in Britain and beyond.
England legend Gary Lineker, a former Leicester player and host of the BBC’s Match of the Day, tweeted: “That was the most difficult @BBCMOTD I’ve ever hosted… A terrible tragedy. Heartbreaking.”
Leicester City stars Jamie Vardy and Harry Maguire both tweeted emojis of hands held up in prayer.
Nualphan Lamsam, also known as Madam Pang, an influential figure in Thai football who manages the national women’s team, sent “moral support to Vichai and family” in a post on Facebook.
And ordinary fans in central Bangkok said Vichai helped develop Thailand’s football as well, bringing the Southeast Asian country greater recognition in the sports world.
“He is an important person who has raised the bar of Thai football further,” Apichart Jitratkavee, a Leicester fan in the Thai capital, told AFP.
“There were projects by Leicester City to select Thai teenagers to train in the club’s academy. They will have a chance to serve the nation in the future.”
Vichai bought Leicester City in 2010 and moved to 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.
The local ambulance service said it was alerted of an accident about 75 minutes after the final whistle blew.
Leicestershire police said Sunday the Air Accidents Investigation Board, which probes civil air aircraft accidents, would lead the investigation.
– Miracle season –
It was under Vichai’s ownership that Leicester City crafted one of the biggest fairy-tales in English football history by winning the 2015/16 Premier League, having started the season as 5,000-1 outsiders for the title.
Vichai’s major investments in the club helped return 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 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 football 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