JAKARTA – Divers, ships and aircraft began a new search in the waters off Indonesia Wednesday, a day after spotting the first signs of debris from AirAsia Flight QZ8501.
The grim discovery of wreckage from the missing plane and several bodies dealt a heartbreaking blow to families whose loved ones were lost.
Debris was found 100-200 kilometers (60-120 miles) from the aircraft’s last known location over the Java Sea, Indonesia’s search and rescue agency said.
Six bodies from the flight have been recovered so far, including one flight attendant, Indonesian search and rescue chief Bambang Soelistyo said Wednesday.
Now search teams are homing in on the area near where the debris was found, looking for bodies and parts of the plane, including its so-called black boxes. Those could help investigators determine what went wrong on the flight, which lost contact with air traffic controllers on Sunday with 162 people aboard.
Sonar equipment is searching the bottom of the sea, 40 to 50 meters (131 to 164 feet) below the water’s surface, according to SB Supriyadi, the search agency’s director of operations.
Dozens of ambulances were lined up in the Indonesian city of Surabaya, ready to carry any bodies recovered.
The search isn’t easy; heavy winds and cloudy weather could affect visibility and make scanning the water more difficult.
On Tuesday, searchers spotted a shadow that looked like the plane’s “skeleton,” Supriyadi said, but strong currents have so far stopped their efforts to locate it again on Wednesday.
As families watched a live news conference Tuesday about the discovery of the debris and saw video of a helicopter lowering a diver to what appeared to be a floating body, some people fainted. Stretchers were brought into the room.
Family members burst into tears, dabbing their eyes as officials passed out tissues. Some sat with their eyes full of tears, hands covering their mouths or heads buried in their hands. Others had phones jammed against their ears.
“Everyone became hysterical, especially the mothers. One mother even blacked out,” said Maria Endang Wirasmi, whose daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren were on the flight.
Her husband, Imam Sampurno, said he was relieved the plane had been found.
“We hope that our children will be saved by a miracle,” he said.
AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes told reporters he hoped there was “at least some closure” for families.
“My heart is filled with sadness for all the families involved in QZ 8501,” he tweeted. “On behalf of AirAsia my condolences to all. Words cannot express how sorry I am.”
Military crew spotted an object’s shadow
Soelistyo, the head of Indonesia’s search and rescue agency, said the debris was discovered when a crew on a military aircraft spotted the shadow of an object that looked like a plane in the water off the coast of Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan province on Borneo.
Further searching found floating objects believed to be the bodies of passengers, and then what appeared to be an emergency exit of the plane. Officials sent other search teams racing to the area.
Several nations are contributing resources to the effort, including the United States. The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Sampson arrived Tuesday.
The USS Fort Worth is also being prepared to deploy from Singapore, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said. It “can be ready to sail in a day or two to get on station and can be there very quickly,” he said.
The United States is also preparing maritime patrol aircraft that could help, he said.
The flight, which was lost Sunday on its way to Singapore, was carrying 155 passengers and seven crew members. The overwhelming majority were Indonesians. There were also citizens of Britain, France, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea.
Search and rescue teams are diverting all their resources to where the debris is, in the Karimata Strait, about 110 nautical miles southwest of the Indonesian city of Pangkalan Bun, AirAsia said.
How can a modern airliner vanish?
Fernandes said the focus for now must remain on the recovery effort, and no sweeping changes were planned for the airline, which has 1,000 flights a day. “But rest assured,” he said, that once the investigation is done, if “there are things we need to change, that we will change it.”
The Airbus A320-200 lost contact with air traffic control early Sunday shortly after the pilot requested permission to turn and climb to a higher altitude because of bad weather, according to Indonesian officials.
Authorities mounted a huge effort to find the aircraft, mapping out a search zone covering 156,000 square kilometers.
Questions remain about why Flight 8501 lost contact with air traffic control and what happened afterward.
Some experts have said the aircraft might have experienced an aerodynamic stall because of a lack of speed or from flying at too sharp an angle to get enough lift.
Analysts have also suggested the pilots might not have been getting information from onboard systems about the plane’s position or that rain or hail from thunderstorms in the area could have damaged the engines.
The key to understanding what happened is likely to be contained in the aircraft’s flight recorders.
“Until we get the black boxes, we won’t know what’s going on with the engines,” said Bill Savage, a former pilot with 30 years of experience.
News stirs emotions of families from another missing flight
The disappearance of Flight 8501 also stirred painful memories of the families of people on board Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which dropped off radar over the South China Sea in March.
For them, the news from Indonesia brought everything back.
“The fear about losing someone, the pain, and the desperation,” said Steve Wang, whose mother was on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight.
Nearly 10 months later, searchers are still combing remote reaches of the southern Indian Ocean for any trace of the Boeing 777 that had 239 people on board.
“The lack of ability to close things down emotionally is just exhausting,” Sarah Bajc said on Monday night. Her partner, Philip Woods, was on board Flight 370.
When news broke that another plane had disappeared this week, Bajc said, “I just started to shake.” – Agencies