PANGKALAN BUN, INDONESIA – After nearly a week of searching for the victims of AirAsia Flight QZ8501, rescue teams battling monsoon rains had their most successful day yet, more than tripling the number of bodies pulled from the Java Sea, some still strapped to their seats.
Of the 30 corpses recovered so far, 21 were found on Friday, many of them by a U.S. Navy ship, according to officials.
The Airbus A320 carrying 162 passengers and crew went down Sunday, halfway into a flight from Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, to Singapore. Minutes before losing contact, the pilot told air traffic control he was approaching threatening clouds, but was denied permission to climb to a higher altitude because of heavy air traffic.
It remains unclear what caused the plane to plunge into the sea. The accident was AirAsia’s first since it began operations in 2001, quickly becoming one of the region’s most popular low-cost carriers.
Indonesian authorities on Friday grounded AirAsia flights from Surabaya to Singapore, with the Transport Ministry saying the airline did not have a permit to fly on Sundays, the day of the crash. AirAsia said it was reviewing the suspension.
AirAsia said it was reviewing the suspension.
Indonesian officials were hopeful Saturday they were honing in on the wreckage of Flight QZ8501 after sonar equipment detected two large objects on the ocean floor. Teams equipped with a remote-operated vehicle were battling high waves and strong currents as they tried to capture images of the find for confirmation, said Henry Bambang Soelistyo, chief of the National Search and Rescue Agency.
The objects were detected early Friday by an Indonesian Navy ship, and by midnight, searchers had zoomed in with a Geological Survey vessel to take dimensions.
“I’m confident this is part of the AirAsia plane,” said Soelistyo. One of the objects was measured at 9.4 meters by 4.8 meters and was 0.5 meter high. The other, found nearby, measured 7.2 meters by 0.5 meter.
Generally, aviation experts say the more passengers, luggage and parts of the aircraft that remain intact indicate the plane hit the water in one piece. That would signal problems like a mechanical error or a stall instead of a midair breakup due to an explosion or sudden depressurization.
For family members, the seven-day wait has been agonizing, with local media covering every development and theory, many of which have proved to be untrue, including a false report that a body was found wearing a life jacket, which would have indicated passengers had time to prepare for the impact or miraculously were able to put them on after hitting the water.
As more bodies start to arrive in Surabaya, some relatives said they simply felt worn out. But they were encouraged by reports that parts of the plane had been found and hoped that everyone on board would be retrieved.
“Let’s hope the news is true. We need to move on,” said Ongko Gunawan, whose sister was traveling with her husband and their child.
Vessels involved in the search for debris included at least eight sophisticated navy ships from Singapore, Russia, Malaysia and the U.S. equipped with sonars for scouring the seabed to pinpoint the all-important black boxes and the wreckage. The U.S. Navy said it was sending a second vessel, one of the newest in the fleet, to help in the search.
The hope, officials say, is that the body of the plane will still be largely intact, speeding the investigation. “Many of passengers believed to be still trapped inside the plane’s fuselage and could be discovered soon,” one official said, “God willing, we would complete this operation next (this) week.”