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Bad Weather Complicates Search for AirAsia Victims, Wreckage

  • VOA News

Bad weather is hampering the search for the victims and wreckage of an AirAsia jet that went down in the Java Sea near the Indonesian island of Borneo.

Indonesian Search and Rescue Agency chief Bambang Soelistyo said three more corpses were pulled from the sea Wednesday, bringing the total number of bodies recovered to six.

"Today, this morning, we found and retrieved three bodies - two male and a female wearing a stewardess uniform. As for the details, this is not our job. Up until now, we have recovered six bodies," said Soelistyo.

Soelistyo said waves of up to three meters, strong winds, and heavy rain are preventing helicopters from searching the area. None of the 162 passengers and crew on board the plane have been found alive.

The first trace of the plane was discovered Tuesday, not far from where the Airbus A320 disappeared during a storm en route from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore.

Investigators hope to determine the cause of the crash once divers locate and recover the plane's cockpit voice and flight data recorders.

Indonesia's search and rescue agency says sonar images suggest the main body of the plane is lying upside down on the bottom of the sea, which is only 20 to 30 meters deep.

Local television Tuesday showed rescue helicopters pulling bodies from the Java Sea, in the same area where pieces of the plane were found.

Families of the 162 people on board AirAsia Flight 8501 burst into tears and hugged one another after seeing the images of the wreckage and floating bodies, which were not wearing life jackets.

QZ8501 Crash Site

QZ8501 Crash Site

None of the passengers or crew have been found alive.

At a news conference at the Surabaya airport, Widodo offered his condolences Tuesday to the loved ones of those aboard the flight and said his priority was the quick recovery of victims' remains.

"My deep condolences go out to the families of the passengers and crew. I am feeling their loss and pray that they are given all the courage and strength to face this tragedy," Widodo said.

The wife of pilot Iriyanto, who like many Indonesians went by one name, said she was staying strong for the couple's children.

"I'm here for my children and their future, so I must be strong and open with this situation," Widya Sukarti Putri said.

The pilot's father described the experienced airman, who had more than 20,000 flying hours, as a good man.

"He is a patient man, always trusted Allah. His behavior towards his parents as well as to the community around him was good," Soewarto said.

'Absolutely devastated'

Tony Fernandes, the CEO and founder of AirAsia, said he was "absolutely devastated" by the tragedy. Earlier on Twitter, Fernandes said his "heart is filled with sadness for all the families involved," and that "words cannot express how sorry I am."

At least 30 ships, 15 aircraft and seven helicopters from several countries looked for the plane between Borneo and Sumatra islands. The shallowness of the sea, between 40 to 50 meters deep, was expected to aid efforts to recover the aircraft and vital communications data, including the flight recorders.

Fransiskus Bambang Soelistyo, head of the Search and Rescue Agency, told reporters that “the challenge is waves up to three meters high” at the site where bodies and debris were found.

The search effort will be bolstered with the arrival of a U.S. Navy warship. The USS Sampson, which was already on deployment in the area, is equipped with sonar devices that can scan underwater. A second ship, the USS Fort Worth, was standing by in Singapore and will head to the crash site if needed.

In Washington, the White House said the United States sent its condolences to the families and loved ones and stood ready to provide Indonesia with all the help it needed.

The passengers aboard AirAsia Flight 8501 included 149 Indonesians, three South Koreans, and one each from Britain, Malaysia and Singapore. The crew included six Indonesians and a French co-pilot.

No distress signal

Initial investigation of the crash blamed severe weather for the tragedy.

The twin-engine plane gave no distress signals before disappearing, though pilots had asked permission to fly at a higher altitude to avoid a storm cloud.

Indonesian officials said that permission was not granted because other planes were in the area. The jet was instead approved to fly around the storm.

Hugh Ritchie, chief executive of Sydney-based Aviation Consultants International, told VOA that satellite images highlighted the storm’s ferocity.

“This was pretty ferocious. You are going to have very strong updraft and very strong downdraft — quite sufficient to cause the aircraft to disappear," Ritchie said.

"And while it may not destroy the aircraft, the stress could cause the aircraft to break up in the air. I would assume that icing or a combination of icing and severe turbulence would have caused this accident," he added.

Low-cost airline

The plane was operated by the Indonesian affiliate of AirAsia, a Malaysian-based, low-cost airline that previously had a spotless safety record. The AirAsia group has affiliates in Thailand, the Philippines and India.

The airline's troubles continued Tuesday on a smaller scale when a plane from subsidiary AirAsia Zest skidded off a runway in the Philippine city of Kalibo with 159 people aboard. No injuries were reported.

The accident was the third for a Southeast Asian carrier this year.

In March, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The plane, which was carrying 239 people, is believed to have crashed into the Indian Ocean off the western coast of Australia, though no trace of it has been found.

In July, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed in eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Western officials believe that plane was shot down by Moscow-backed Ukrainian rebels.

On Wednesday, families of the victims of the latest tragedy were to be flown from Surabaya to Belitung island, located on the east coast of Sumatra, to formally identify victims.

Ron Corben contributed to this report from Bangkok. Some material for this report came from Reuters.

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