PANGKALAN BUN, Indonesia: Recovery teams expanded their search in the Java Sea on Monday as they raced to find bodies and wreckage from AirAsia Flight 8501, which authorities fear have drifted in rough weather that has hampered operations over the past week.
As the massive relief effort entered its ninth day, officials were hopeful for a break in poor conditions to send divers down to the area where large parts of the crashed Airbus A320-200 have been found.
Only 34 bodies have so far been recovered from the disaster scene and there is no sign yet of the “black box” flight data recorders, which are key to determining the cause of the incident on December 28.
A total of 162 people were onboard when the plane crashed into the sea during a storm, en route from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore.
“Hopefully the weather is good today so that the ROVs [remotely-operated underwater vehicles] and other instruments can be used and our divers can go to the seabed again,” search and rescue official S.B. Supriyadi told Agence France-Presse.
He said he was hopeful they would find “all the parts” of the aircraft on Monday and get its exact coordinates underwater.
“Yesterday when our divers went down, the visibility was very bad,” Supriyadi added.
Recovery crews nonetheless made some progress on Sunday, retrieving four more bodies and locating a fifth large chunk of the plane.
The discoveries came after Indonesia’s meterological agency BMKG said that weather was the “triggering factor” of the crash with ice likely damaging the plane’s engines.
Supriyadi said the search, which is being assisted by several countries, including the United States and Russia, would expand eastwards on Monday on suspicions that strong currents have caused parts of the plane to drift.
Several aircraft were making their way from Pangkalan Bun, a town on the island of Borneo with the nearest airstrip to the wreckage, to scour the sea’s surface. Speed boats were sweeping the coastline for signs of bodies that may have drifted to shore.
Indonesia’s military chief General Moeldoko said he had offered to take victims’ relatives out to the crash site to pay their respects.
“We will bring them to the navy ships and we will take them to the location to scatter flowers, and I hope coming to the location can reduce their sadness and the feeling of loss,” he told reporters.
Hope to find black boxes
Supriyadi said the search teams were assessing whether to lift the discovered plane parts off the seabed in an effort to find the flight data recorders.
“We hope to find the black boxes as soon as possible,” he said.
“If the tail is upside down and the door to the black box is in the mud, we need to dig the seafloor and that’s difficult. We are hoping the door to the black box is facing upwards so it is easier for us to fetch it,” he added.
The report by BMKG into the likely cause of the crash referred to infra-red satellite pictures that showed the plane was passing through clouds with top 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.
The operation has prioritized finding the bodies of the victims, most of whom were Indonesian. Some of the bodies have been found still strapped into their seats.