‘Shadow’ on seabed pinpoints AirAsia jet’s grave

Prayers for the missing as Indonesia gets ready for recovery of ill-fated airliner
At Juanda International Airport, Surabaya, relatives of passengers react to news that bodies were found at sea.  Trisnadi / AP Photo
At Juanda International Airport, Surabaya, relatives of passengers react to news that bodies were found at sea. Trisnadi / AP Photo

PANGKALAN BUN, Indonesia // The hunt for a missing AirAsia passenger plane came to an end on Tuesday as wreckage and bodies were recovered from the sea off the Indonesian coast.

The Airbus A320-200 with 162 people on board disappeared en route from Indonesia’s second largest city Surabaya to Singapore during a storm early on Sunday.

Rescue teams recovered the first bodies and debris including an exit door and a blue suitcase from the Java Sea south-west of Borneo.

An air force plane saw a “shadow” on the seabed believed to be that of the missing Flight 8501.

On the third day of searching, the first signs of the jet were found in shallow, aqua waters only 16 kilometres from the plane’s last known co-ordinates. A life jacket, and an emergency exit door were spotted and recovered. Parts of the jetliner’s interior, including an oxygen tank, were also brought to the nearest town, Pangkalan Bun. Six corpses were later spotted about 160 kilometres from the coast.

Rescue workers were lowered on ropes from a hovering helicopter to retrieve bodies but efforts were hindered by 2-metre waves and strong winds.

National Search and Rescue Director SB Supriyadi, who was on board one of the search aircraft, saw what appeared to be more wreckage under the water, which was clear and a relatively shallow 20 to 30 metres.

National Search and Rescue Agency chief Bambang Soelistyo said just three bodies had been recovered so far before the search was called off for the night due to bad weather.

Mr Soelistyo said all efforts were now being concentrated on the location where the “shadow” and debris had been found.

Late on Tuesday Airbus confirmed it was “informed by the Indonesian authorities that the accident site of flight QZ8501 has been located.”

President Joko Widodo praised the search teams and said three warships were heading to the location.

“Tomorrow there will be a massive search by the ships and helicopters,” he said after flying over the area and visiting Pangkalan Bun.

“We all pray for the families to be given fortitude and strength to face this tragedy,” he said in Surabaya between meeting relatives.

AirAsia’s chief executive Tony Fernandes also rushed to Surabaya after news that the debris had been found.

“It’s an experience I never dreamt of happening and it’s probably an airline CEO’s worst nightmare,” he said.

Expressing grief over the first fatal incident to hit the region’s biggest budget airline, he said at least there was some closure for the relatives.

“Words can’t express what they are going through,” he said.

Indonesian officials had already been preparing relatives for the worst, with Mr Soelistyo saying on Monday it was likely the plane was at “the bottom of the sea”, based on its estimated position.

The aircraft lost contact early on Sunday about 40 minutes after take-off, after the crew requested a change of flight plan due to stormy weather.

In his last communication, the pilot said he wanted to avoid a menacing storm system. Then all contact was lost.

Before take-off the pilot had asked for permission to fly at a higher level to avoid the storm but his request was not approved due to heavy traffic on the busy route, according to AirNav, Indonesia’s flight navigation service.

In his final communication, the pilot asked to alter his course and repeated his original request to ascend to avoid the bad weather.

“The pilot requested to air-traffic controllers to deviate to the left side due to bad weather, which was immediately approved,” AirNav safety director Wisnu Darjono said.

“After a few seconds the pilot requested to ascend from 32,000 to 38,000 feet but could not be immediately approved as some planes were flying above it at that time,” he said.

“Two to three minutes later when the controller was going to give a clearance to a level of 34,000, the plane did not give any response,” Mr Darjono said.

China, which had 152 citizens on board Malaysia Airlines MH370 which vanished in March, offered to send a frigate and military aircraft to help with the international search. The United States said it was sending the USS Sampson destroyer, joining at least 30 ships, 15 aircraft and seven helicopters in the search

The missing plane was operated by AirAsia Indonesia, a unit of Malaysian-based AirAsia. Of the 162 passengers and crew, 155 were Indonesian.

The crash comes at the end of a disastrous year for Malaysian aviation.

Flight MH370 disappeared while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew, and in July another Malaysia Airlines flight — MH17 — was shot down over unrest-hit Ukraine, killing all 298 on board.

*Agence France-Presse and Associated Press

Published: December 31, 2014 04:00 AM


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