Bad weather forced divers trying to identify sunken wreckage from a crashed AirAsia QZ8501 passenger jet to abort their mission on Sunday and Indonesian officials said they had not yet picked up any signals from the lost plane’s “black box”.
Indonesia’s meteorological agency has said seasonal tropical storms probably contributed to last Sunday’s crash and the weather has persistently hampered efforts to recover bodies and find the cockpit voice and flight data recorders that may explain why the Air Asia Flight QZ8501 Airbus A320-200 plunged into the sea.
“Conditions did not allow diving operations,” the head of Indonesia’s search and rescue agency, Fransiskus Bambang Soelistyo, told a news conference in Jakarta. “Our priority is to dive in the location we suspect parts of the plane to be.”
AirAsia Flight QZ8501 crashed into the Java Sea about 40 minutes after taking off last Sunday from Indonesia’s second-largest city Surabaya en route for Singapore. There were no survivors.
The main focus of the search is about 90 nautical miles off the coast of Borneo island, where five large objects believed to be parts of the plane — the largest about 18 metres (59 feet) long — have been pinpointed by ships using sonar.
“Based on past experience, the black box is not far from the plane debris we have found,” Soelistyo said. But he added that none of the searching ships had detected any “pings”, the locator signals the black box should transmit after a crash.
Until investigators can examine the black box recorders the cause of the crash remains a mystery, but the area is known for intense seasonal storms. BMKG, Indonesia’s meteorological agency, has said bad weather may have caused ice to form on the aircraft’s engines.
“The flight document provided by the BMKG office shows fairly worrying weather conditions for the aircraft at cruising level on the chosen route,” the agency said in a report.
Both flight recorders are located near the tail of the Airbus, but it was unclear whether that part of the aircraft was among the debris found on the seabed.
Check out the conversation on Airasia flight QZ8501 on Twitter timeline:
“Based on the finding of pieces of debris it looks like the body of the aircraft split or cracked and was separated from its tail,” said Air Force Lt Col Johnson Supriyadi, a search and rescue official co-ordinating the operation from the southern Borneo town of Pangkalan Bun.
The suspected wreckage is lying in water around 30 metres deep, which experts say should make it relatively straightforward to recover.
Nine ships from four countries have converged on the area, with teams of divers including seven Russian experts standing ready, but strong winds and four-metre high waves have kept progress agonisingly slow.
Check out the Airasia flight QZ8501 announcements on Twitter timeline:
“There’s a storm … Earlier, four divers were transferred to (Indonesian navy ship) KRI Banda Aceh but they cancelled the diving because the sea currents were too strong,” said a Reuters photographer on board one vessel.
Second Sergeant Akhyar of the search and rescue agency described what it was like being winched onto the deck of a ship to collect bodies in such conditions.
“The wind makes you spin and I’m quite light, so I get blown left and right, swinging,” he said.
BODIES MAY BE IN FUSELAGE
Thirty-four bodies of the mostly Indonesian passengers and crew have so far been recovered, including some still strapped in their seats. Many more may be still trapped in the fuselage of the aircraft.
“This big part of the plane, we still have hope that victims are still inside the body of the plane,” said Soelistiyo, adding that he was referring to one of the five objects found.
The crash was the first fatal accident suffered by the AirAsia budget group, whose Indonesian affiliate flies from at least 15 destinations across the sprawling archipelago.
The airline has come under pressure from Indonesian authorities, who have suspended its Surabaya to Singapore operations saying the carrier only had a licence to fly the route on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
Indonesia AirAsia said it would co-operate with the transport ministry while it investigates the licence.
A joint statement from Singapore’s civil aviation authority (CAAS) and Changi Airport Group said that AirAsia had the necessary approvals to operate a daily flight between Surabaya and Singapore.
Prayers held as weather blocks divers from AirAsia site
(AP) Relatives of those who died in the AirAsia crash sought strength in prayer Sunday, one week after the disaster killed all 162 on board, as rough weather again prevented searchers from reaching a large object on the ocean floor believed to be the plane’s fuselage.
Emotionally exhausted family members sang and cried at a tiny chapel in Surabaya, the city where Flight 8501 departed from Dec. 28. The Rev. Philip Mantofa, who heads the congregation at Mawar Sharon Church – where more than a quarter of the victims were members – urged those gathered to find comfort in their faith.
”If God has called your child, allow me to say this: Your child is not to be pitied,” Mantofa said, locking eyes with a grieving father seated in the front row. ”Your child is already in God’s arms. One day, your family will be reunited in heaven.”
It is not known what caused the Singapore-bound plane to crash into the Java Sea 42 minutes after taking off on what was supposed to be a two-hour flight. Just before losing contact, the pilot told air traffic control that he was approaching threatening clouds, but was denied permission to climb to a higher altitude because of heavy air traffic.
Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, has been gripped by grief as bodies, one by one, continue arriving in simple, numbered coffins after being painstakingly pulled from the water. Three more corpses were recovered Sunday, raising the total to 34.
Round-the-clock coverage of the disaster also has reignited fear of flying for some in a country that has suffered a string of plane accidents in recent years, as new airlines pop up to meet booming demand in Indonesia, a sprawling archipelago nation of 250 million people.
Late Saturday, some passengers panicked when the auxiliary power failed inside another AirAsia plane leaving from Surabaya, this one headed to the Indonesian city of Bandung, according to a statement issued by the airline.
The lights and other electrical equipment shut down inside the cabin while the plane was still on the tarmac, and the pilot returned to the gate. Of the 161 passengers on board, 60 refused to fly and were given full refunds, AirAsia officials said.
”There was no engine trouble, but some of the passengers were spooked,” said AirAsia Group chairman Kamarudin Meranun. ”It is understandable, since the crash is still fresh in their minds.”
The crash of Flight 8501 has triggered an intensive international search-and-recovery operation involving 20 planes and helicopters along with 27 ships from Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and the United States. All have been desperately searching for the all-important black boxes, pieces of the Airbus A320 and corpses.
The investigation got a huge boost this weekend when sonar equipment identified five large objects on the seabed in the search area, but no images have been captured confirming they are part of the aircraft. Suspected plane parts also were seen scattered on beaches during an aerial survey.
After detecting the five large objects – the biggest measuring 18 meters (59 feet) long and 5.4 meters (18 feet) wide and believed to be the fuselage – officials said it was possible that many passengers and crew would be found inside.
Divers tried to reach the site on Sunday, but rolling seas stirred up silt and mud, leaving them with zero visibility, said Henry Bambang Soelistyo, chief of Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency.
”At this moment, it’s impossible to send any divers,” he said. ”We’ll wait until the weather gets better.”
While it remains unclear what caused the plane crash, bad weather appears to have been a factor, according to a report by Indonesia’s Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency.
Indonesian authorities have also announced the grounding of AirAsia flights from Surabaya to Singapore, with the Transport Ministry saying the airline did not have a permit to fly on Sundays. However, Singapore’s Civil Aviation Authority said that from its end, the airline had been approved to fly the route daily.
AirAsia, which began operations in 2001 and quickly became one of the region’s most popular low-cost carriers, said it was reviewing the suspension. The crash was the airline’s first.
While Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, many of the plane’s passengers were Christians of Chinese descent. The Rev. Mantofa’s congregation was hit particularly hard, with 45 of the crash victims – from 13 families – belonging to his large Pentecostal church.
Following Sunday’s chapel service, Edo Anggradinata, 52, said he was finally starting to let go of the hope that his sister and her two children had survived.
”My mind is still in a daze,” he said. ”If there is a miracle, I hope they are alive, but I know this is tough. I just pray that we find their bodies.”