A multinational team searching for a crashed AirAsia passenger jet found another large underwater object believed to be part of the plane, but persistent bad weather hampered efforts on Sunday, to locate its black box recorders and recover bodies of victims.
Indonesian officials say five pieces of wreckage have now been pinpointed on the sea floor off Borneo, where the Airbus A320-200 crashed a week ago with 162 people on board.
Divers were sent to investigate the debris early on Sunday, but diving had since been suspended due to bad weather, the head of Indonesia’s search and rescue agency, Fransiskus Bambang Soelistyo, said.
Flight QZ8501 crashed into the Java Sea last Sunday, about 40 minutes after taking off from Indonesia’s second largest city Surabaya en route for Singapore. There were no survivors.
Earlier Rukman Soleh, weather bureau chief in Pangkalan Bun, the southern Borneo town where the search operation is based, had said there could be a break later on Sunday in the wind and heavy seas that have dogged recovery efforts all week.
“Weather should provide the search effort with a window of opportunity today, with lower waves expected for the next two days,” he said.
Speaking at the same morning briefing for pilots, Air Force Lt Col Johnson Supriadi said efforts would be divided between recovering bodies and locating wreckage and the all-important cockpit voice and flight data recorders.
Until investigators can examine the recorders the cause of the crash remains unknown, but the area is known for intense seasonal storms and BMKG, Indonesia’s meteorological agency, has said bad weather was likely a factor.
“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.
A source close to the investigation told Reuters that radar data appeared to show the aircraft made an “unbelievably” steep climb before it crashed, possibly pushing it beyond the A320’s limits.
The Indonesian captain, a former air force fighter pilot, had 6 100 flying hours on the A320 and the plane last underwent maintenance in mid-November, according to Indonesia AirAsia, 49% owned by Malaysia-based AirAsia.
The objects that are the main focus of the search were located by ships about 90 nautical miles off the coast of Central Kalimantan province, on the island of Borneo. The largest object is around 18 metres long.
The suspected wreckage is lying in water around 30 metres deep, which experts say should make it relatively straightforward to recover if the rough weather abates.
Efforts to capture images with remote operated vehicles (ROVs) were frustrated on Saturday by poor visibility.
Thirty-one 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.
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 whilst 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.
More than a thousand worshippers attended somber Sunday services at an Indonesian church devastated by the crash of AirAsia Flight QZ8501, praying for relatives of lost loved ones – members of the congregation who made up a quarter of the 162 people aboard the plane.
“God, we pray that you will give the grieving families extraordinary strength and help ease their pain,” said the Reverend Johannes Sonny Susanto of Pentecostal Mawar Sharon Church. “Let them put their trust in you and know that you are a good God.”
Amen was echoed by those in the pews.
It is not clear what caused the Singapore-bound plane to plummet into the Java Sea 42 minutes after taking off from Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, last Sunday.
Minutes before losing contact, the pilot told air traffic control he was approaching threatening clouds, but was denied permission to climb to a higher altitude because of heavy air traffic.
Despite a massive international search and recovery operation, so far only 31 bodies have been found, in large because of bad weather. But officials said after locating what appears to be a massive part of the fuselage, it is possible many remaining passengers and crew will be found inside the wreck.
Divers waited for breaks in weather on Sunday to reach the site, but rolling seas stirred up silt and mud, leaving them with zero visibility, said Henry Bambang Soelistyo, chief of the National Search and Rescue Agency.
They had to turn back because conditions were so bad.
“At this moment, it’s impossible to send any divers,” he said. “We’ll wait until the weather gets better.”
Twenty planes and helicopters were being deployed Sunday together with 27 ships from Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, the United States searching for the all-important black boxes and pieces of wreckage.
The investigation got a huge boost this weekend when sonar equipment identified five giant objects on the sea bed in the search area, but no images have been captured confirming they are part of the AirAsia plane.
The biggest piece of debris, measuring 18 meters long and 5.4 meters wide, appeared to be part of the jet’s body, said Soelistyo. Four other chunks were found in the same area.
Suspected plane parts also were seen scattered on beaches during an aerial survey.
Another body was recovered Sunday, Soelistyo said, bringing the total so far to 31.
Family members of those who died in the disaster, meanwhile, continued to wait, hoping that at the very least the bodies would be returned to them so they could be properly buried.
Many attended a small, intimate chapel service at the police headquarters where the crisis center is based, some sobbing so hard they had to be consoled by church counselors who hugged and prayed for them.
Reverend Philip Mantofa locked eyes with an Indonesian man who lost a child and was sitting in the first row.
“If God has called your child, allow me to say this: your child is not to be pitied,” he said. “Your child is already in God’s arms. One day, your family will be reunited in heaven.”
Mantofa urged the man to be strong for the sake of his three remaining children.
“We are sad, but we are not like those without hope,” he said. “God, against all odds, we pray that there will be survivors but alive or dead, help the rescuers find all the bodies. Help the families to move on.” –Reuters, Sapa