AirAsia crash: More bodies retrieved as search continues

Nine bodies have so far been retrieved, as officials said the return of rough weather was hindering efforts to locate the plane's wreckage and the rest of the bodies.

Police carry debris from a boat believed to be an emergency slide from the wreck of the AirAsia QZ8501 jet, at the Kumai Port, Pangkalan Bun on January 1, 2015. Antara Foto/Reuters
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PANGKALAN BUN, Indonesia // Relatives held the first funeral for a victim of AirAsia Flight QZ8501 on Thursday as bad weather hampered efforts to locate the wreckage of the plane which crashed in the sea off Borneo with 162 aboard.

Nine bodies have so far been retrieved in the search for the Airbus A320-200, which disappeared from radar during a storm on Sunday en route from Indonesia’s second city of Surabaya to Singapore.

Search officials said the return of rough weather was hindering efforts to locate the plane and the rest of the bodies.

“The problem we faced today is unfriendly weather conditions,” the search and rescue agency chief Bambang Soelistyo said. “The waves were between three and four metres.”

He said the search teams would persevere even though conditions were expected to remain bad for days to come.

“From tomorrow until the fourth, with the existing forces, calculations and tactics we have, we will still be fighting, but I hope we can still get some results despite having to face such conditions.”

He said a national transport safety committee team had arrived in Pangkalun Bun, a town on Borneo island with the nearest airstrip to the crash site, and would start searching for the aircraft’s flight recorders on Friday.

French and Singaporean experts are also set to join the search for the black boxes, which are crucial to determining the cause of the crash.

The first funeral of a crash victim was held on Thursday afternoon after one of the bodies was formally identified as a woman named Hayati Lutfiah Hami, and handed over to her family in Surabaya.

After prayers at her home, the coffin was taken for burial at a Muslim cemetery nearby, with more than 100 neighbours in attendance.

“I am grateful to God that my sister-in-law was found and I hope the rescuers find the others as soon as possible,” said Agung Wahyu Darmono, 38.

Police said they were still working on formal identification of one young man.

A centre for identifying the victims has been set up at a hospital in Surabaya with facilities to store 150 bodies.

AirAsia chief executive Tony Fernandes said the search appeared to be closing in on its final location.

“I am hoping that the latest information is correct and aircraft has been found. Please all hope together. This is so important,” Fernandes said on Twitter on Thursday.

It was not clear what his source was and the Indonesian naval commander heading the international search fleet was more cautious.

“We cannot be sure”, of the exact location, said First Admiral Rasyid Kacong.

“The plan is we want some divers to embark on the Banda Aceh. Then we can go to the suspected location,” he said.

“I can only be sure that it is a plane after we dive. We are also looking for the black boxes.”

Indonesian national air safety investigator Toos Sanitioso warned it could take at least a week to locate the aircraft.

The plane is believed to be in relatively shallow water of between 25 to 32 metres.

During searches on Tuesday, which retrieved wreckage that confirmed the flight had crashed, an air force plane saw a “shadow” on the seabed believed to be the missing plane. All efforts are now being concentrated there.

Debris found so far includes an exit door, an emergency slide, several suitcases and part of an AirAsia trolley.

Before takeoff the pilot had asked for permission to fly at a higher altitude to avoid a storm. But his request was not approved due to other planes above him on the popular route, according to AirNav, Indonesia’s air traffic control.

In his last communication, Captain Iriyanto, an experienced former air force pilot, said he wanted to change course to avoid the menacing storm system. Then all contact was lost, about 40 minutes after the plane had taken off.

Of the 162 passengers and crew on board Flight QZ8501, 155 were Indonesian, with three South Koreans, one Singaporean, one Malaysian, one Briton and a Frenchman – co-pilot Remi Plesel.

The plane was operated by AirAsia Indonesia, a unit of Malaysia-based AirAsia, which previously had a solid safety record.

The crash came at the end of a disastrous year for Malaysian air travel.

After the disappearance of Flight MH370 in March, en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew, another Malaysia Airlines flight – MH17 – was shot down over Ukraine in July, killing all 298 on board.

In further bad news for AirAsia, one of its pilots tested positive for morphine, an executive of AirAsia Indonesia said on Thursday. However, further tests were needed since the pilot had been taking flu medicine which could give a false result.

* Agence France-Presse