A massive hunt for the 162 victims of AirAsia Flight QZ8501 resumes in the Java Sea but wind, strong currents and high surf hampering recovery efforts.
A much needed break in the weather gave searchers a window Thursday to “fight with full force” to find the victims of AirAsia Flight 8501, with officials also hustling to locate the fuselage of the plane that crashed in the sea four days ago.
Only seven of the 162 bodies have been recovered so far, with four of them found over the past two days arriving Thursday morning in Pangkalan Bun on Borneo island. They will later be flown for identification to Surabaya, where the two-hour flight to Singapore originated on Sunday.
“The visibility is good this morning, we are ready to fight with full force to search for bodies, wreckages that can reveal what went wrong with this accident,” said First Marshal Agus Dwi Putranto, an Air Force Operation commander helping to lead the search, adding four aircraft were dispatched to the area just after sunrise.
Choppy conditions had prevented divers from entering the water on Wednesday, and helicopters were largely grounded. But 18 ships surveyed the narrowed search area. Sonar images identified what appeared to be large parts of the plane, but strong currents were moving the debris.
A massive hunt for the 162 victims of AirAsia Flight QZ8501 had resumed in the Java Sea on Wednesday, with six bodies, including a flight attendant identified by her trademark red uniform, recovered. But wind, strong currents and high surf hampered recovery efforts as distraught family members anxiously waited to identify their loved ones.
Three bodies were retrieved Tuesday, while the others were found after the search resumed Wednesday morning, said Indonesia’s Search and Rescue Agency chief Henry Bambang Soelistyo.
On Tuesday, the number had varied with different officials saying as many as six corpses had been discovered.
He said half of those found were male and half female, including the flight attendant.
The first proof of the jet’s fate emerged Tuesday in an area not far from where it dropped off radar screens. Searchers found the bodies and debris that included a life jacket, an emergency exit door and a suitcase about 10 miles from the plane’s last known coordinates.
On Wednesday, divers were deployed, but heavy rain and clouds grounded helicopters, said Soelistyo.
Indonesia says finds large dark object presumed to be AirAsia jet
A sonar image showing a large, dark object under the sea was presumed to be the missing AirAsia plane, an official with Indonesia’s search and rescue agency said on Wednesday.
“It’s about 30-50 metres under water,” said the official, Hernanto.
Crews are standing by to collect and identify bodies from the plane that crashed on Sunday during bad weather on a flight from Indonesia to Singapore.
“We are praying it is the plane so the evacuation can be done quickly,” Hernanto said.
Another AirAsia jet in emergency: Check out tweet
The airliner’s disappearance halfway through a two-hour flight between Surabaya, Indonesia, and Singapore triggered an international search for the aircraft involving dozens of planes, ships and helicopters. It is still unclear what brought the plane down.
The plane needs to be located and its cockpit voice and flight data recorders, or black boxes, recovered before officials can start determining what caused the crash.
AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes tweets:
My heart is filled with sadness for all the families involved in QZ 8501. On behalf of AirAsia my condolences … https://t.co/OJGobL93cR
— Tony Fernandes (@tonyfernandes) December 30, 2014
Images of the debris and a bloated body shown on Indonesian television sent a spasm of anguish through the room at the Surabaya airport where relatives awaited news.
The first sign of the jet turned up about 10 miles (16 kilometers) from its last known coordinates. Parts of the interior, including the oxygen tank, were brought to the nearest town, Pangkalan Bun. Another find included a bright blue plastic suitcase, completely unscratched.
”I know the plane has crashed, but I cannot believe my brother and his family are dead,” said Ifan Joko, who lost seven family members, three of them children, as they traveled to Singapore to ring in the new year. ”We still pray they are alive.”
The corpses were spotted about 160 kilometers (100 miles) from Central Kalimantan province.
Rescue workers descended on ropes from a hovering helicopter to retrieve bodies. Efforts were hindered by 2-meter (6-foot) waves and strong winds, National Search and Rescue Director SB Supriyadi said.
The first body was later picked up by a navy ship. Officials said as many as six others followed, but they disagreed about the exact number.
Supriyadi was on the aircraft and saw what appeared to be more wreckage under the water, which was clear and a relatively shallow 20 to 30 meters (65 to 100 feet).
Check out the conversation on Airasia flight QZ8501 on Twitter timeline:
When TV broadcast an image of a half-naked man floating in the water, a shirt partially covering his head, many of the family members screamed and wailed uncontrollably. One middle-aged man collapsed and had to be carried out on a stretcher.
About 125 family members were planning to travel Wednesday to Pangkalan Bun to start identifying their loved ones. Body bags and coffins have been prepared at three hospitals there. Dozens of elite military divers also joined the search.
Malaysia-based AirAsia’s loss comes on top of the still-unsolved disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in March with 239 people aboard, and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July over Ukraine, which killed all 298 passengers and crew.
Nearly all the passengers and crew were Indonesians, who are frequent visitors to Singapore, particularly on holidays.
Haidar Fauzie, 60, said his youngest child and only daughter, Khairunnisa Haidar, was a flight attendant who had worked with AirAsia for two years.
On learning about the crash, he struggled to console his grieving wife. They last saw their child six weeks ago, when she returned home on holiday.
”From the start, we already knew the risks associated with being a stewardess,” Fauzie said. ”She is beautiful and smart. It has always been her dream to fly. We couldn’t have stopped her.”
AirAsia group CEO Tony Fernandes, the airline’s founder and public face and a constant presence in Indonesia since the tragedy started unfolding, said he planned to travel to the recovery site on Wednesday.
”I have apologized profusely for what they are going through,” he said of his contact with relatives. ”I am the leader of this company, and I have to take responsibility. That is why I’m here. I’m not running away from my obligations.”
The jet’s last communication indicated the pilots were worried about bad weather. They sought permission to climb above threatening clouds but were denied because of heavy air traffic. Four minutes later, the jet disappeared from the radar without issuing a distress signal.
Several countries rushed to Indonesia to help with search and recovery efforts.
Check out the Airasia flight QZ8501 announcements on Twitter timeline:
The United States said it was sending the USS Sampson destroyer, joining at least 30 ships, 15 aircraft and seven helicopters in the search for the jet.
A Chinese frigate was on the way. Singapore said it was sending two underwater beacon detectors to try to pick up pings from the plane’s all-important cockpit voice and flight-data recorders. Malaysia, Australia and Thailand are also involved in the search.
Bad weather hampers search for AirAsia wreckage after debris
Ships and planes resumed the search for wreckage, bodies and black boxes of a doomed AirAsia plane on Wednesday after Indonesian rescuers found several bodies and debris floating in shallow waters off the coast of Borneo.
However, 2-3 metres (6-9 ft) waves and winds prevented divers from searching the crash zone for the sunken remains of Flight QZ8501, which had 162 people on board when it vanished on Sunday about 40 minutes into its flight from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore.
Aviation experts believe that, weather permitting, the fuselage may be easily found by divers as the aircraft probably only broke up when it hit the water.
Fully clothed bodies could also indicate the plane was intact when it hit the water and support a theory that the Airbus A320-200 suffered an aerodynamic stall and plunged into the sea.
“The fact that the debris appears fairly contained suggests the aircraft broke up when it hit the water, rather than in the air,” said Neil Hansford, a former pilot and chairman of consultancy firm Strategic Aviation Solutions.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo said his priority was getting bodies off the bottom of the Karimata Strait in the Java Sea, where rescuers retrieved a plane door and other debris on Tuesday, so victims could be identified.
The United States said its destroyer USS Sampson and combat ship USS Fort Worth were awaiting instructions from the Indonesian search command on the recovery operation. Singapore said it was sending two underwater beacon detectors to try to pick up pings from the black boxes, which contain cockpit voice and flight data recorders.
About 30 ships and 21 aircraft from Indonesia, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and the United States have been involved in the search.
NO DISTRESS CALL
The plane, which did not issue a distress signal, disappeared after its pilot failed to get permission to fly higher to avoid bad weather because of heavy air traffic.
It was travelling at 32,000 feet (9,753 metres) and had asked to fly at 38,000 feet. When air traffic controllers granted permission for a rise to 34,000 feet a few minutes later, they received no response from the aircraft.
Online discussion among pilots has centred on unconfirmed secondary radar data from Malaysia that suggested the aircraft was climbing at a speed of 353 knots, about 100 knots too slow, and that it might have stalled.
Investigators are focusing initially on whether the crew took too long to request permission to climb, or could have ascended on their own initiative earlier, said a source close to the inquiry, adding that poor weather could have played a part as well.
A Qantas pilot with 25 years of experience flying in the region said the discovery of the debris field relatively close to the last known radar plot of the plane pointed to an aerodynamic stall, most likely due to bad weather. One possibility is that the plane’s instruments iced up in a tropical thunderstorm, giving the pilots inaccurate readings.
The lack of a distress call indicated the pilots may have realised too late they were in trouble and were too busy struggling to control the aircraft to issue a call, the Qantas pilot said.
The Indonesian pilot, a former air force fighter pilot with 6,100 flying hours under his belt, was experienced and the plane last underwent maintenance in mid-November, said the airline, which is 49 percent owned by Malaysia-based budget carrier AirAsia.
Three airline disasters involving Malaysian-affiliated carriers in less than a year have dented confidence in the country’s aviation industry and spooked travellers across the region.
Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 went missing in March on a trip from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew and has not been found. On July 17, the same airline’s Flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board.
On board Flight QZ8501 were 155 Indonesians, three South Koreans, and one person each from Singapore, Malaysia and Britain. The co-pilot was French.
The AirAsia group, including affiliates in Thailand, the Philippines and India, had not suffered a crash since its Malaysian budget operations began in 2002.