The head of Indonesia's National Search and Rescue Agency said the search area for the wreckage and victims of AirAsia Flight 8501 is being expanded, as the hunt for the plane's "black boxes," or flight data recorders, continues.
On Tuesday, Henry Bambang Soelistyo said authorities are opening up a "second priority" search area in the Java Sea off Indonesia. The plane went down into the sea more than a week ago during a storm, though no official cause has been determined.
Soelistyo said late Tuesday a U.S. Navy ship located two more metal objects using sonar signals, though it is not known yet if they are part of the missing plane. Those would add to the five large objects, believed to have been part of the plane, detected so far.
Strong currents forced Indonesia to expand the search area on Tuesday, as rough seas and bad weather moved debris and made it difficult to reach suspected sections of the fuselage, including the tail where the flight data recorders are located, on the ocean floor.
Buried in seabed
Suryadi Supriyadi, director of operations for the National Search and Rescue Agency, said there had been no "pings" detected from the black box's emergency locator beacon, possibly because it was buried in the seabed or the muddy water was impeding its signal.
"They haven't found anything, maybe because the water is turbid and there is zero visibility," Supriyadi, who is coordinating the operation from the southern Borneo town of Pangkalan Bun, said. "There's a possibility it is buried in mud."
Divers, including teams from Russia and Singapore, were sent down to the sea floor during a break in the weather on Tuesday, but they were struggling to investigate the wreckage, Supriyadi said.
"Some of them tried to dive, but the bad weather hampered the diving operation," he told the French news agency, AFP, from Pangkalan Bun, which has the nearest airstrip to the wreckage. "Divers haven't managed to get close to the large parts of the plane so far."
Forensic experts from Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates have been working with Indonesia to assist in identifying the bodies. There were 162 people on board the plane when it crashed.
Two more bodies were found on Tuesday, for a total of 39, but only 16 bodies have been identified and returned to their families. All of the bodies found so far were spotted floating on the sea's surface, some still strapped into their seats, according to officials.
Officials believe many more bodies could be trapped in the fuselage of the aircraft.
While the intensive search goes on, Indonesia’s acting director general of air transportation, Djoko Murjatmodjo, has launched an audit and investigation into the nation’s airline industry.
AirAsia’s Indonesia offshoot is already being investigated for not having official permits to operate its flight to Singapore on Sundays. The ministry also ordered the suspension of the Surabaya airport operator and control tower officials.
Indonesia is one of the world's fastest growing aviation markets and its carriers, such as Lion Air and Garuda Indonesia, are among the top customers for plane makers Airbus and Boeing.
Hugh Ritchie, chief executive officer of Australian based Aviation Consultants International, said the crackdown comes against concerns over Indonesia’s air safety record in the past.
“Overall, it’s starting to come out I suppose, it’s something what we expected, is that beneath the surface of all this - and it’s not just AirAsia - if you have a look at [low-cost carrier] Lion, you have a look at most of these low-cost carriers, their management and their compliance requirements really does need to be reviewed and AirAsia was meant to be the best," Ritchie said.
Weather likely suspect
The Indonesian meteorological agency BMKG has said weather was the "triggering factor" of the crash, with ice likely damaging the plane's engines.
The initial report by BMKG into the likely cause referred to infra-red satellite pictures that showed the plane was passing through clouds with temperatures of minus 80 to minus 85 degrees Celsius.
But it remained unclear why other planes on similar routes were unaffected by the weather, and other analysts said there was not enough information to explain the disaster until the flight recorders were recovered.
AirAsia has declined to comment until investigations into its operations are completed.
The twin-engine Airbus A320 disappeared from radar without a distress call nearly halfway into what was supposed to be a two-hour flight from Surabaya to Singapore.
Before takeoff and during the last moments of the flight, the pilots requested to fly at a higher altitude to avoid a storm. The request was not approved because other planes were in the area.
The search for the remaining bodies has been exhausting for family members anxiously waiting to identify and bury their loved ones.
On Tuesday, eight Islamic clerics flew in a helicopter over the site where the plane is believed to have crashed and scattered rice into the sea, a local tradition, and prayed for those who perished.
The international rescue effort has brought together teams from over a half-dozen nations using 20 planes and helicopters along and more than 25 vessels.
On Tuesday, China dispatched a naval vessel and aircraft to the search area. Other nations taking part include Indonesia, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and the United States.
The U.S. naval vessels involved in the effort are the Seventh Fleet destroyer USS Sampson and USS Fort Worth, as well as a resupply vessel.
U.S. Navy deputy public affairs officer Lieutenant Lauren Cole said the international cooperation in the search effort has been at a high level.
“Whenever there’s a tragedy, whenever there’s some sort of crisis that requires response, it’s really amazing to see all of the countries pull together and assist with whatever needs to be done," Cole said.
"In this case, the Indonesians have done a truly tremendous job in conducting and organizing the entire multinational search effort,” she added.
Ron Corben contributed to this report from Bangkok. Some material for this report came from Reuters, AFP and AP.