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Chilean ex-President Piñera drowned after a crash in a helicopter he was piloting, prosecutors say

VIÑA DEL MAR, Chile (AP) — Chilean prosecutors on Wednesday released more details about the death of former President Sebastian Piñera, saying he drowned after the helicopter he was piloting crashed into a lake.

Piñera, 74, died on Tuesday after a flight over Lake Ranco, more than 560 miles (900 kilometers) south of Santiago. The crash remains under investigation, but bad weather conditions were reported in the area.

As more details of his death were released, tributes hailing him as a champion of democracy continued to pour in.

On Tuesday night, the former president's body was taken to Valdivia for an autopsy. On Wednesday morning, Chilean President Gabriel Boric received Piñera's body at Santiago airport, accompanied by his widow, Cecilia Morel, and other relatives.

The public can start paying their last respects to Piñera on Wednesday night, with a state funeral to be held on Friday.

Piñera was an experienced helicopter pilot, former Defense Minister Alberto Espina said Tuesday night, and was flying the aircraft in which three other people were also traveling. Of the four occupants, the other three passengers survived the crash.

The crash occurred shortly after takeoff in an area that Piñera knew well. The former president had a summer residence there, which he frequented for adventure sports.

After the news of his death on Tuesday, the political world reacted with messages of condolences, honoring the leader as a democratic beacon in a country once plagued by a military dictatorship. Thousands of Chileans paid tribute to him.

Piñera served two terms — from 2010 to 2014 and again from 2018 to 2022. Boric declared three days of national mourning. Piñera’s death came as Chile already was recovering from deadly wildfires in the county’s central region.

Piñera led Chile during moments of profound crisis, including a devastating earthquake and tsunami and during the coronavirus pandemic, in which Chile became one of the global leaders for vaccination.

He was also president during the rescue of 33 miners trapped in a mine in the barren Atacama Desert for 69 days that captured the world's attention.

Jimmy Sánchez, one of the rescued miners, said that it was a pleasure to meet Piñera.

“I am very grateful,” Sánchez said. “He gave us our lives back."

But his legacy was marred by his government's violent repression of protesters in 2019, in which his government stood accused of using disproportionate force against demonstrators and torturing detainees.

Piñera was the first person from the political right to lead the South American country since Chile’s return to democracy in 1990.

He entered politics representing the center-right, which was the civilian support of the military regime. However, when he served as an independent senator, he voted against the extension of dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).