ANGKALAN BUN, Indonesia: Recovery teams have found two big parts of AirAsia Flight QZ8501, which crashed into the sea last weekend with 162 people on board, Indonesia’s top search official said on Saturday.
News of the discovery came after Indonesia’s transport ministry said the plane had been flying on an unauthorized schedule when it crashed, and the airliner has now been suspended from flying the route from the city of Surabaya to Singapore.
The parts of the plane were found in the Java Sea off the island of Borneo late Friday night, raising hopes that the remaining bodies and the black boxes, crucial to determining the cause of the crash, will soon be located.
“With the discovery of an oil spill and two big parts of the aircraft, I can assure you these are the parts of the AirAsia plane we have been looking for,” search and rescue agency chief Bambang Soelistyo told reporters.
So far recovery teams have found 30 bodies of those killed when the Airbus A320-200 went down early Sunday during a storm, and Soelistyo said they were now sending divers to the spot where plane parts had been found to try to recover the remaining bodies.
“The main focus today is to find and evacuate victims,” he said.
The director general of air transport, Djoko Murjatmodjo, said AirAsia’s permit to fly the route of Flight 8501 had been frozen because the plane had been on an unauthorized schedule.
“It violated the route permit given, the schedule given, that’s the problem,” Murjatmodjo told Agence France-Presse, adding that the permit for the route would be suspended until investigations were completed.
A statement from transport ministry spokesman J.A. Barata said AirAsia had not been permitted to fly the Surabaya-Singapore route on Sundays and had not asked to change its schedule.
It was unclear how the airliner, which has yet to officially respond to the ministry’s statement, had been able to fly without the necessary authorization.
The plane was operated by AirAsia Indonesia, a unit of Malaysia-based AirAsia, which previously had a solid safety record.
Recovery teams, which have been hampered by rough weather in recent days, on Friday narrowed their search to an area of 45 by 35 nautical miles centered about 75 nautical miles southwest of Pangkalan Bun, a town in Central Kalimantan on Borneo.
Search official S.B. Supriyadi in Pangkalan Bun said their Saturday operation would also comb coastal areas to see if bodies had drifted to shore, while their ability to send divers down would depend on sea currents and waves.
“The visibility needs to be good as well because we need to pay attention to the divers’ safety too,” Supriyadi told Agence France-Presse.
Russia has sent in dozens of divers to help with the operations, as well as two planes, one amphibious, while French and Singaporean investigators are helping to locate the black boxes.
The United States, Australia, South Korea and Malaysia are among other countries helping in the search effort.
Soelistyo said the larger of the two objects found on Friday night was about 10 meters by five meters.
“As I speak we are lowering an ROV [remotely operated underwater vehicle]underwater to get an actual picture of the objects detected on the sea floor. All are at the depth of 30 meters,” he said.
He added however that the strong current was making it difficult to operate the ROV.
Toos Sanitioso, an investigator from the KNKT (National Transportation Safety Committee), said he was hopeful they would find the black boxes in a few days.
“It seems that they have found the major [plane]parts,” he told reporters in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city.
The families of victims have been preparing funerals as the bodies recovered are identified in Surabaya, where a crisis center has been set up at a police hospital with facilities to store 150 bodies.
Of the 162 passengers and crew on board, 155 were Indonesian, with three South Koreans, one Singaporean, one Malaysian, one Briton and a Frenchman —co-pilot Remi Plesel.
Ongko Gunawan, who lost his sister and brother-in-law and their child, expressed impatience as he waited for news.
“We are exhausted and sick of it. Hopefully we can find the bodies quickly, now that there’s also help from the foreign countries,” he said.
Before take-off, the pilot of Flight 8501 had asked for permission to fly at a higher altitude to avoid a storm, but the request was not approved due to other planes above him on the popular route, according to AirNav, Indonesia’s air traffic control.
In his last communication shortly before all contact was lost, he said he wanted to change course to avoid the menacing storm system.