Bad weather hampers AirAsia jet recovery
PANGKALAN BUN, INDONESIA // Bad weather hindered efforts to recover victims of AirAsia Flight 8501 on Wednesday as grieving relatives prayed for strength to endure their losses.
“Help us God, to move forward, even though we are surrounded by darkness,” prayed Reverend Philip Mantofa, whose church lost about 40 members in the disaster, as families gathered in a waiting room at the Surabaya airport.
The massive hunt for 162 people who vanished on Sunday aboard the Airbus A320 from Surabaya, Indonesia to Singapore, was severely limited due to heavy rain, wind and thick clouds.
Seven bodies, including a flight attendant in her red AirAsia uniform, have been recovered, said Indonesia’s Search and Rescue Agency chief Henry Bambang Soelistyo.
Sonar images also identified what appeared to be large parts of the plane, but strong currents sent wreckage drifting far from the crash site.
Conditions prevented divers from entering the choppy Java Sea, and helicopters were largely grounded. But 18 ships continued to scour the narrowed search area, and four of the seven corpses were recovered on Wednesday.
Indonesia’s Meteorology and Geophysics Agency predicted conditions would worsen, with more intense rains, through Friday.
“It seems all the wreckage found has drifted more than 50 kilometres from yesterday’s location,” said Vice Air Marshal Sunarbowo Sandi, a search and rescue coordinator in Pangkalan Bun on Borneo island, the closest town to the site. “We are expecting those bodies will end up on beaches.”
The airliner’s disappearance halfway through the two-hour flight triggered an international search involving dozens of planes, ships and helicopters from several countries. It is still unclear what brought the plane down.
Its 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.
The aircraft’s cockpit voice and flight data recorders, or black boxes, must be recovered before officials can determine what caused the crash.
Items recovered so far include a life jacket, an emergency exit window, children’s shoes, a blue suitcase and backpacks filled with food.
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.
Simple wooden coffins – numbered 001 and 002 – with purple flowers on top contained the first two bodies, which were sent from Pangkalan Bun to Surabaya. The two victims were a woman wearing blue jeans and a boy. The other five bodies – three male and two female – will remain on a warship until the weather clears.
Nearly all the passengers were Indonesian, and a large number of them were Christians of Chinese descent.
Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, but about 10 per cent of those in Surabaya, the nation’s second-largest city, are Christian.
On Wednesday, around 100 relatives gathered for the airport prayer service where Rev Mantofa urged them to hold onto their faith, despite their pain. About 40 members of his Manwar Sharon Church died in the crash.
“Some things do not make sense to us, but God is bigger than all this,” he said. “Our God is not evil.”
Many family members had planned to travel to Pangkalan Bun, 160km from the area where bodies were first spotted, to start identifying their loved ones.
However, Surabaya airport general manager Trikora Hardjo later said the trip was cancelled after authorities suggested their presence could slow down the operation.
Instead, some relatives gave blood for DNA tests in Surabaya, where the bodies will be transported, and submitted photos of their loved ones along with identifying information such as tattoos or birthmarks that could help make the process easier.
Nearly all the Indonesian passengers were frequent visitors to Singapore.
It was 13-year-old Adrian Fernando’s first trip to the city-state as he went on a vacation with his aunt, uncle and cousin before school started.
“He is my only son,” said his emotional mother Linca Gonimasela, 39, who could not accompany him because she had to work. “At first, he didn’t want to go, but later on he was persuaded to join them for the New Year holiday.”
A number of Indonesian cities, including Surabaya, have opted to cancel or tone down their planned New Year’s Eve celebrations. However, a giant street bash was still in the works for the capital, Jakarta.
“We are in mourning over the AirAsia disaster that claimed the lives of many Indonesians,” said minister of home affairs Tjahjo Kumolo, who called on civil servants nationwide to pray for the victims’ families instead of holding public New Year’s events.
“We need to show our sense of sympathy by restraining from holding excessive partying.”
* Associated Press
Published: December 31, 2014 04:00 AM