AirAsia victim with life jacket raises new questions about plane's last moments

AirAsia victim with life jacket raises new questions about plane's last moments
Indonesian Air Force officials show maps to journalists of the search area for the missing Malaysian air carrier AirAsia flight QZ8501, at the airport in Surabaya, East Java, on December 29, 2014.

PANGKALAN BUN/SURABAYA, Indonesia - A body recovered on Wednesday from the crashed AirAsia plane was wearing a life jacket, an Indonesian search and rescue official said, raising new questions about how the disaster unfolded.

Rescuers believe they have found the plane on the ocean floor off Borneo, after sonar detected a large, dark object beneath waters near where debris and bodies were found on the surface.

Ships and planes had been scouring the Java Sea for Flight QZ8501 since Sunday, when it lost contact during bad weather about 40 minutes into its flight from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore.

Seven bodies have been recovered from the sea, some fully clothed, which could indicate the Airbus A320-200 was intact when it hit the water. That would support a theory that it suffered an aerodynamic stall.

The fact that one person put on a life jacket suggests those on board had time before the aircraft hit the water, or before it sank.

And yet the pilots did not issue a distress signal. The plane disappeared after it asked for permission to fly higher to avoid bad weather.

"This morning, we recovered a total of four bodies and one of them was wearing a life jacket," Tatang Zaenudin, an official with the search and rescue agency, told Reuters.

He declined to speculate on what the find might mean.

A pilot who works for a Gulf carrier said the life jacket indicated the cause of the crash was not "catastrophic failure". Instead, the plane could have stalled and then come down, possibly because its instruments iced up and gave the pilots inaccurate readings.

"There was time. It means the thing didn't just fall out of the sky," said the pilot, who declined to be identified.

He said it could take a minute for a plane to come down from 30,000 feet and the pilots could have experienced "tunnel vision ... too overloaded" to send a distress call.

"The first train of thought when you get into a situation like that is to fly the aircraft."

Most of those on board were Indonesians. No survivors have been found.

Hernanto, head of the search and rescue agency in Surabaya, said rescuers believed they had found the plane on the sea bed with a sonar scan in water 30-50 metres (100-165 feet) deep. The black box flight data and cockpit voice recorder has yet to be found.

Authorities in Surabaya were making preparations to receive and identify bodies, including arranging 130 ambulances to take victims to a police hospital and collecting DNA from relatives.

"We are praying it is the plane so the evacuation can be done quickly," Hernanto said.

Strong wind and waves hampered the search and with visibility at less than a kilometre (half a mile), the air operation was called off in the afternoon.

"We are all standing by," Dwi Putranto, heading the air force search effort in Pangalan Bun on Borneo, told Reuters.

"If we want to evacuate bodies from the water, it's too difficult. The waves are huge and it's raining."

Indonesian President Joko Widodo said his priority was retrieving the bodies.

Relatives, many of whom collapsed in grief when they saw the first grim television pictures confirming their fears on Tuesday, held prayers at a crisis centre at Surabaya airport.

AirAsia Chief Executive Tony Fernandes has described the crash as his "worst nightmare".

 

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