Dread, Then Grief, Engulfs Leicester After Owner’s Helicopter Crash

LEICESTER, England — By Sunday morning, half a dozen bouquets of flowers had been placed against a wall outside King Power Stadium. Leaning next to them was a framed portrait of Ganesha, the god of beginnings, the remover of obstacles. A handful of Leicester City fans stood a few yards from the makeshift shrine, their heads bowed.

They could not quite put into words what had drawn them there. At that stage, they were not certain if they were there to pray and to hope, or simply to mourn. They came in grief, in its cruelest form: grief that offers still a glimmer of a reprieve.

It was not until late Sunday night that Leicester City confirmed what they had all feared: that Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the Thai billionaire who had bought a stuttering team and transformed it into the most remarkable champion in English soccer history, had been among the five people killed in a helicopter crash outside the club’s stadium on Saturday night.

“It is with the deepest regret and a collective broken heart that we confirm our chairman, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, was among those to have tragically lost their lives on Saturday evening,” the club said in a statement. “The world has lost a great man. A man of kindness, of generosity, and a man whose life was defined by the love he devoted to his family and those he so successfully led. Leicester City was a family under his leadership.”

[Read additional coverage: Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, Leicester City Owner, Is Dead After Chopper Crash]

Those fans drifting and drawn toward King Power did not know that then; all dreaded it, many assumed it, though few spoke of it. All they knew was what had happened a little after 8:30 on Saturday night: The helicopter that habitually took Mr. Vichai to and from home games had taken off from the center of the King Power field.

They knew, from witnesses’ accounts, that it had struggled to clear the roof of the stadium. It had completed a 180-degree turn, heading south to Luton Airport, where his private jet was on standby to take him back to Thailand, as it always did. The helicopter had seemed to sputter for a moment, and then it had spiraled to the ground. It landed a few hundred yards from the stadium, in a club parking lot, sending a fireball into the dark sky.

Emergency medical workers had arrived within two minutes. In the stadium, club officials and players, frantic with worry, tried to ascertain what had happened, who had been on board. Most fans had left the stadium by then; many found out only after they returned home and switched on their televisions, their radios, their cellphones. “I had just got in the door,” said Tom Salmon, who had been at the game. “I stood for about five seconds, just staring at my phone.”

Srivaddhanaprabha in 2016 during a Champions League match at King Power Stadium.CreditPaul Ellis/Agence France-Presse

That sense — of numbness, of loss, of disbelief — endured on Sunday morning in this city of about 350,000 in central England. Overnight, reports had emerged that there had been five people on board, including two crew members; most presumed Mr. Vichai was among them.

But the Leicestershire Police, working with the Air Accidents Investigation Branch and the Fire and Rescue Service, could not confirm anything. Investigators were still on site, sifting through the wreckage, the scene hidden from view by a police cordon. Fans could only wait, and, despite themselves, hope.

Slowly, the carpet of flowers outside the stadium grew. Clutching freshly purchased bouquets, clasping scarves and jerseys, a steady stream of fans appeared: old and young, male and female, whole families holding one another for support.

Each laid their offering in a neat line on the ground. Next to Ganesha, a small statue of Buddha rested, a testament to Mr. Vichai’s faith: He had often invited Buddhist monks to come to Leicester to bless the team’s field. Votives adorned with Buddha’s image nestled among the jerseys — not just the royal blue of Leicester, but the rich red of Liverpool, the bright white of Leeds United, the sky blue of Manchester City.

By midday, the shrine had started to sprawl away from the wall and on to the concourse around the stadium. A crowd, somber and silent, stood in front of it. Few spoke. Some knelt, offering a prayer; others stood, tears brimming in their eyes, for a few minutes, before wandering away, their place taken immediately by another. Staff members quietly extended the barriers that surrounded the shrine, to create space for other tributes. Still, nobody knew, not for sure.

Few of those who had gathered outside the stadium had met Mr. Vichai; the vast majority would never have heard him speak. They would only be able to offer a broad-brush sketch of what he was like: the man they felt they knew, the man they did not want to acknowledge they were mourning.

Though the sight of his helicopter landing on the field after games suggested a showman’s streak, he had shown little appetite for publicity since purchasing Leicester in summer 2010, back when it was struggling in the second-tier Championship. He got it for a song, too, paying just 39 million pounds, or about $60 million at the time.

Four years into his reign, when Leicester was promoted to the Premier League, he said he wanted it to be challenging for a place at the top of the league within five years. He had vowed to provide the funds — drawn from his personal fortune, estimated at around $5 billion, earned through his King Power International chain of duty free stores in Thailand, to make that ambition a reality. That aside, he rarely granted interviews; he was not given to public pronouncements.

But despite the distance he had kept in public, the emotion that had brought the fans to the stadium, that kept them coming through the afternoon, was not just sincere — to many, it felt deeply personal.

Bouquets of flowers were added to the tribute outside King Power throughout the day on Sunday.CreditStephen Pond/Getty Images

“It feels as though you have lost a member of your family,” said Nick Orr, 58, flanked by his children. He was “lucky” enough to have met Mr. Vichai, he said, briefly shaking his hand and thanking him at a club event in 2014. “He was just such a nice man,” Orr said. “He always had that radiant smile. Whenever you saw him, he was smiling. He brought joy to many thousands of people. It is only right to come and pay your respects.”

That affection had been earned through the signature event of Mr. Vichai tenure, Leicester’s fairy-tale title victory in 2016, the story that “put the team and the city on the map,” according to Neel Mistry, 25, who grew up within a few minutes’ walk of the stadium.

Leicester had never won an English championship in its 132-year history. At the start of that season, bookmakers had ranked it as a 5,000-1 outsider; its team was made up, to most observers, of journeymen and castoffs, a ragtag assortment of players in the world’s most competitive and most glamorous league. Leicester won it, in the end, with ease, 10 points clear of its nearest rival.

Mr. Vichai took great pleasure in the triumph — he lingered with the trophy during the club’s celebrations — but he did not seek to steal the limelight from his players or Claudio Ranieri, his manager. His son, Aiyawatt, the club’s vice chairman, was the official chosen to address the news media; on the murals that dot the city commemorating the victory, neither is depicted.

But those fans who flooded to King Power did not do so just because Mr. Vichaihad made their dreams come true; the grief was for the man himself. He was famous for his largess to Leicester’s fans: During that title-winning season, he paid thousands to hand out free “clackers” to improve the atmosphere at home games. He regularly paid for everyone in the stadium to have a free beer, cupcake or doughnut on his birthday. Last season, he handed out 60 free season tickets to mark his 60th.

“We play at Cardiff in a couple of weeks,” Mr. Mistry said. “They’re laying on breakfast for the fans who are traveling down at the stadium, and everyone will get a free scarf. It’s that sort of thing that means a lot.”

Less public, but more important, were his donations to the city: £2 million to the Royal Infirmary Hospital, for a new children’s wing; £1 million to the Foxes Foundation, the club’s charitable arm; £100,000 to the fund to rebury Richard III in 2015; £23,000 to help a fan fund research into his son’s rare genetic disorder.

“He wanted the club to be at the heart of the community,” Mr. Mistry said.

In turn, on Sunday, his community poured out its heart: not that of his club, but that of the city. “It’s bigger than club loyalties,” said Mr. Salmon’s father, Pat, a Leeds fan. “It’s something that affects all of football.”

By the end of the afternoon, as darkness drew in, there were dozens of tidy lines of flowers, thousands of tributes, each one a little totem of what Mr. Vichai had meant to Leicester.

A little after 10 p.m., the club, its heart broken, confirmed he had been one of the five on board, and that none had survived. Through the evening, the fans were still coming. The shrine was still growing.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/28/sports/leicester-city-owner-helicopter-crash.html