Indonesian officials said a naval patrol vessel may have found what could be the section of a crashed AirAsia passenger jet where the crucial black box voice and flight data recorders are located.
"We found what has a high probability of being the tail of the plane," Yayan Sofyan, captain of the patrol vessel, told reporters.
The possible discovery occurred the same day Indonesia suspended several aviation officials following the revelation that AirAsia Flight 8501 did not have the proper permits to fly the day it went down in a storm over the Java Sea.
The search is now in its ninth day, and search-and-recovery teams took advantage of calmer seas Monday to expand the hunt for wreckage and victims of a passenger jet that crashed en route from Indonesia to Singapore on December 28.
AsiaAir search area
With the recovery of three more bodies Monday, 37 have been found, but only 13 have been identified. Bad weather for most of the last week has hampered search and recovery efforts.
Officials said the underwater current at the site of what is believed to be the main wreckage is still too strong for divers there. The current is also the reason the search has widened, as debris might have spread over some distance.
Bambang Soelistyo, head of the National Search and Rescue Agency, said, "The diving team, including the Russian divers, still cannot dive. Only two divers managed to dive, but since the underwater current is so strong, they are all now on standby."
The Airbus A320 with 162 people onboard enroute from Indonesia to Singapore went down more than a week ago during a storm, though no official cause has been determined.
Recovery teams hope to reach what they believe is the plane’s fuselage, where they expect to find passenger bodies, and to retrieve the aircraft's flight data recorders - the "black boxes" - located in the tail section of the aircraft.
Despite Sofyan's suggestion that patrol boats may have found the site where the tail section is, Soelistyo said, "I am not saying it's the tail yet. ... That is suspected. Now we are trying to confirm it."
Soelistyo said five vessels were deployed to find the "ping" signal of the black box, but none have yet succeeded.
Searching sea, shores
A multinational force involving more than 20 planes and helicopters and more than 20 vessels is now scouring waters more than 160 kilometers off Borneo.
Earlier Monday, several aircraft made their way from Pangkalan Bun, a town on Borneo Island with the nearest airstrip to the wreckage, to scour the sea. Speedboats were also sweeping the coastline to look for any bodies that may have drifted ashore.
Indonesia's military chief General Moeldoko said on Monday that relatives of AirAsia crash victims would be offered a chance to visit the site where the plane crashed into the sea, to scatter flowers and say goodbye.
Indonesia's weather bureau said weather conditions were a factor in causing the plane to plunge into the Java Sea. The findings posted on the agency's website reference several other flights that experienced problems like engine failure and severe turbulence during storms in the area in the last decade.
Before takeoff and during the last moments of the flight, the Flight 8501 pilots requested to fly at a higher altitude to avoid a storm. The request was not approved because there were other planes in the area.
The twin-engine jet disappeared from radar without a distress call nearly halfway into what was supposed to be a two-hour flight from Surabaya to Singapore.
Indonesian officials have revealed that AirAsia Flight 8501 was not licensed to fly the route on that day.
The Ministry of Transport said Monday that the airline was approved to fly the route from the city of Surabaya to Singapore on Mondays, Tuesdays Wednesdays and Saturdays. But the plane took off on a Sunday.
The ministry has suspended AirAsia flights on the route and will conduct a full investigation, separate from the crash investigation. The ministry said it will also inspect the route licenses of other airlines.
“I do not want to comment on whether the license had anything to do with the crash. We will wait for the results from KNKT [National Committee for Safety Transportation],” said Djoko Murjatmodjo, acting director general of air transportation at Indonesia’s Transport Ministry.
It was not immediately clear what difference, if any, the day of the week had on the December 28 flight, and Murjatmodjo made clear that the investigations of the route and the crash were separate.
Murjatmodjo also said key individuals who allowed the plane to fly without permits would be suspended while the investigation is pending.
Indonesian officials say they remain hopeful recovery of the remaining bodies from the wreckage may be complete within days. But a complete investigation into the reasons for the tragedy, expected to be overseen by Indonesian and French transportation safety officials, may take up to 12 months.
Ron Corben contributed to this article from Bangkok. Some material for this report came from Reuters, AP and AFP.