Crews recover debris, bodies in AirAsia plane search
(NT Times) SURABAYA, Indonesia – Indonesian rescue teams said Tuesday that they had found bodies and what appeared to be debris from the AirAsia plane that vanished less than an hour after taking off from the airport here on Sunday.
Djoko Murjatmodjo, a senior official with Indonesia’s Transportation Ministry, confirmed that the debris was from Flight 8501, which was carrying 162 people when it disappeared. “We’ve confirmed the wreckage was from the body of the plane,” he said Tuesday in Jakarta, the capital.
Members of search teams told the Indonesian news media that they had spotted what appeared to be suitcases, life vests and aircraft debris. Indonesian television showed a rescuer descending from a helicopter toward a bloated corpse floating in the sea.
The bodies shown on television were not wearing life jackets.
The bodies and debris were found in the Karimata Strait off the coast of Borneo. The first sightings were about 66 miles southeast of the last detected position of the plane, whose destination was in the opposite direction, toward the northwest. It was not immediately clear whether the jet had changed course in its final moments in the air.
Search teams also spotted what appeared to be a larger piece of the fuselage of the Airbus A320-200, which was operated by the Indonesian affiliate of AirAsia.
“My heart is filled with sadness for all the families involved in QZ 8501,” Tony Fernandes, the founder of AirAsia, wrote in a Twitter message soon after the debris was discovered. “On behalf of AirAsia my condolences to all. Words cannot express how sorry I am.”
Earlier Tuesday, the Indonesian authorities had expanded the search area, suggesting that they had few leads as to the whereabouts of the plane, which vanished on Sunday morning, about 40 minutes after leaving Surabaya bound for Singapore.
“The area we are searching is huge,” Bambang Soelistyo, the head of Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency, said in a briefing. The total search area, including parts of Borneo and smaller islands in the Java Sea, was around 60,000 square miles, the authorities said.
A United States warship had been dispatched to join the search for the missing jet, and Mr. Soelistyo said the Indonesian government had also accepted offers from South Korea and China to help in the search.
The Java Sea, which separates the islands of Borneo and Java, is relatively shallow — around 160 feet at its deepest point — but monsoon conditions were clouding the waters, rescuers said.
Indonesian meteorologists described recovery efforts as a race against time because foul weather — heavy rains, choppy seas and higher winds — was predicted from Friday onward in the search area.
The recovery process was likely to shed light on the cause of the disaster, which has been unknown since the plane disappeared on Sunday. Speculation has ranged from bad weather to fears that the aircraft was traveling too slowly to stay airborne.
Shortly before contact with the plane was lost, its cockpit crew told air traffic controllers that they planned to raise the plane to 38,000 feet from 32,000 feet to avoid a cloud, officials said Monday.
As news spread of the grim discoveries in the sea, relatives of passengers stood despondently outside the Surabaya airport.
“I’m still hoping my brother is safe,” said Ifan Joko, who stood in a light drizzle beside the terminal where relatives and friends had gathered since Sunday.
His brother, Charly Gunawan, who was traveling to Singapore to spend the New Year holiday, was among the 162 people on board.
“If the passengers are dead, I want the bodies brought back to Surabaya,” Mr. Ifan said. “I will pay the bill myself if I have to.”