Recovery teams narrow AirAsia search as more bodies found

More teams join hunt for wreckage of Flight 8501 as number of passengers' bodies recovered rises to 30.

Caskets containing the remains of AirAsia QZ8501 passengers recovered from the sea are carried to a military transport plane at the airport in Pangkalan Bun, Central Kalimantan, on January 2, 2015. / Reuters
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PANGKALAN BUN // Indonesian recovery teams narrowed the search area for AirAsia Flight 8501 yesterday, hopeful they were nearing the plane’s crash site, with 30 bodies and more debris recovered from the sea.

French and Singaporean investigators joined the hunt for the Airbus A320-200, which disappeared from radar during a storm on Sunday en route from Surabaya to Singapore with 162 people on board.

The search teams have deployed side-scan sonar equipment to survey the seabed and pinger locators to fine-tune their search for the plane’s black boxes, crucial to determining why the plane crashed into the Java Sea off Borneo.

Rough weather has in recent days hampered the search for the plane’s fuselage, which is believed to be in relatively shallow water of about 25 to 32 metres.

Search and rescue agency chief Bambang Soelistyo said yesterday’s operation was focused on an area of 1,575 square nautical miles – a tenth of the size of Thursday’s search – with 29 ships and 17 aircraft engaged in the operation.

“There are two main tasks in this priority sector: first, to locate the biggest part of the plane’s body,” he said.

“The second task is to find the position of the black boxes, or flight recorders, which will be carried out by the KNKT (National Transportation Safety Committee) which start working today.

“Divers are already on standby at the navy ship Banda Aceh to dive on that priority area to locate the body of the plane,” he said, voicing hope for a “significant result”.

KNKT chief Tatang Kurniadi said that 40 divers, including 20 deep-sea experts, had arrived from Russia to help, along with two planes, one amphibious.

The search is now focused on an area of 45 by 35 nautical miles centred about 75 nautical miles south-west of Pangkalan Bun, a town in central Kalimantan on Borneo.

With the search area narrowing, Indonesian official SB Supriyadi said they were pressing on despite rough conditions, with high winds and 10 to 13- foot waves.

“The search is still proceeding in systematic way, despite the extreme weather.”

He said ships equipped with sonar may search through the night, but high waves were hampering the use of equipment to find the black boxes.

Two Korean surveillance planes yesterday spotted six bodies, Indonesian air force spokesman Hadi Tjahjanto said. “After sweeping the area for more than two hours, at 11:58 the [planes] found three bodies sitting in one row,” he said, and another three just minutes later.

They informed warships by radio and flares to indicate the location for retrieval, he said.

Relatives were preparing to hold funerals after three more victims were identified, including flight attendant Khairunisa Haidar Fauzi, who had recently posted a picture with the message “I love you from 38,000ft” for her boyfriend.

“I’m arriving in Surabaya to take Nisa (Fauzi) home to Palembang. I cannot describe how I feel. There are no words,” AirAsia chief executive Tony Fernandes tweeted.

Also named was Grayson Herbert Linaksita, 11, who was travelling with his parents and 12-year-old sister.

His great-uncle Bagyono Linaksita, 73, was dreading breaking the news to the children’s grandmother.

“We have not told her the news that the whole family had died in a plane crash. Grayson was her favourite grandchild. She will certainly faint.”

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

Before take-off, the pilot of Flight 8501 had asked for permission to fly at a higher altitude to avoid a storm. But his request was not approved because of other planes above him on the popular route, according to AirNav, Indonesia’s air traffic control.

In his last communication, Capt Iriyanto, an experienced former air force pilot, said he wanted to change course to avoid the menacing storm system.

All contact was then lost, about 40 minutes after the plane had taken off.

* Agence France-Presse