Civilian divers risk death in search-and-rescue mission for Lion Air jet crash victims

Civilian divers risk death in search-and-rescue mission for Lion Air jet crash victims
A time to remember: Family members of the Lion Air flight JT610 crash victims scatter flowers from the deck of KRI Banjar Masin into the sea near Karawang, West Java, in a ceremony held on Tuesday to pray for their loved ones.
PHOTO: The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network

Fifty-year-old Rendra Hertiadhi seemed completely at ease while lounging on a stretcher under the scorching sun.

Most people would immediately seek shelter from the heat, or at least wriggle restlessly on a stretcher typically used to carry the injured and dead bodies.

Such an inclination for convenience did not seem to apply to Rendra, a seasoned underwater diver who would remain comfortable under any circumstances if it meant he could save lives.

"Most people seem puzzled when I tell them I volunteered to take part in dangerous search and rescue operations. There's really no need to be puzzled. Human nature to help others in need should not be seen as an extraordinary thing," he said.

Rendra is among a group of civilian divers who volunteered to assist a joint search and rescue (SAR) operation for the remaining victims of Lion Air flight JT610, which crashed into the Java Sea last Monday with 189 people on board.

Upon hearing the news of the tragic accident, Rendra said he immediately called his connections at the National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas) to ask whether civilian assistance was required.

A senior member of the Indonesia Divers civilian diving community, Rendra considered himself privileged to be involved in various opportunities to serve humanitarian causes.

Lion Air plane carrying 189 people crashes into sea shortly after take-off from Jakarta

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    Chief of Indonesia's Lion Air flight JT610 search and rescue operations Muhammad Syaugi looks through recovered belongings believed to be from the crashed flight at Tanjung Priok port in Jakarta

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    A pair of infant shoes is pictured among recovered belongings believed to be from the crashed Lion Air flight JT610 at Tanjung Priok port in Jakarta.

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    There were 189 people on board flight JT610 of budget airline Lion Air when ground staff lost contact with the Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft early on Monday, 13 minutes after it had left the airport in Jakarta, the capital.

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    Rescue team members arrange the wreckage, showing part of the logo of Lion Air flight JT610, that crashed into the sea

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    A crying mother shows a graduation picture of her son, Agil Nugroho Septian, who was a passenger on Lion Air flight JT610, that crashed into the sea, at her house in Tegal, Indonesia, October 29, 2018.

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    Lutfiani shows an undated picture of her husband, Deryl Fida Febrianto, a passenger on Lion Air flight JT610, that crashed into the sea, at her house in Surabaya, Indonesia, October 29, 2018.

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    A witness in the Karawang district said he had heard an explosion from the beach around the time the aircraft went down.

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    Sangeeta Suneja, mother of Bhavye Suneja, a pilot of Lion Air flight JT610 which crashed into the sea, reacts as she leaves for Jakarta, in New Delhi

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    Gulshan Suneja, father of pilot Bhavye Suneja.

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    Sony Setiawan (C) speaks to journalists at Pangkal Pinang airport in Bangka Belitung province on October 29, 2018, following his arrival on another airline after missing his pre-planned flight on Lion Air flight JT 610 which crashed off the coast north of Jakarta. - Setiawan was due to board the ill-fated Boeing-737 MAX but was held up on his commute to Soekarno-Hatta airport by Jakarta’s notorious traffic congestion.

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    A forensics team carries bodies of the victims of Lion Air flight JT610 to Sukanto National Police Hospital, East Jakarta, on Monday. In a statement, Lion Air said human remains had been collected in 24 body bags after sweeps of the crash site, which is about 15 km (nine miles) off the coast to the northeast of Jakarta.

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    Rescue team members carry a body bag with the remains of a passenger.

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    Indonesian Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati hugs a relative of a victim of the Lion Air flight JT610 crash.

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    The Indonesian authorities have mounted a search and rescue operation for a Lion Air plane which crashed into the sea shortly after take-off from Jakarta on Monday (Oct 29) morning.

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    There are 189 passengers and crew on board the plane, including two infants, one child, two pilots and six cabin crew.

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    The plane plunged into Karawang Bay, West Java province, Mr Muhammad Syaugi, head of the national search and rescue agency, told a press briefing.

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    The waters at the crash site are around 30m to 35m deep.

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    "On the sea surface, we found debris… The location is two nautical miles from where the plane lost contact," he told reporters.

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    The crash site is near a facility of state-owned oil company Pertamina in West Java province. A video taken from a Pertamina vessel near the crash site showed oil patches on the water surface.

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    Officials said the plane had requested a return to base before finally disappearing from the radar.

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    Local TV footage also showed wallets and mobile phones that had been retrieved from the waters.

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    The head of Indonesia's national transportation safety committee (KNKT) Dr Soerjanto Tjahjono told reporters that the Boeing 737 Max 8 plane that crashed entered service in August this year and had clocked only about 800 flight hours.

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    When asked on the cause of the crash, Dr Soerjanto said: "We can't presume anything before finding the blackbox and also the recording from the (air traffic control) tower."

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    An Indonedian boatman takes pictures as debris from the ill-fated Lion Air flight JT 610 floats at sea in the waters north of Karawang, West Java province.

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Though he is eager to take part in such search efforts, he conceded that the actual field work was anything but easy.

During the Lion Air operation, which required divers to descend 32 meters into the Java Sea, Rendra said he had to pay special attention to the gas mix in his oxygen tank so as to not become asphyxiated.

"Inhaling too much oxygen at any depths below 18 m could cause oxygen poisoning, which would result in hallucinations and eventually death," he said.

Syachrul Anto, a former member of Indonesia Divers who also served as a volunteer for the Lion Air search, died last Friday while ascending to the surface.

According to a preliminary medical investigation, Syachrul died from decompression - a drastic change in water pressure caused by a sudden shift in water depths. Basarnas has since declared him a humanitarian hero.

In addition to physical challenges, Rendra said thick mud on the ocean floor had also hampered search efforts by possibly concealing human body parts and debris from the plane.

"I had to resist the temptation to dig into the seabed as it would only muddy up the water and reduce visibility," he said.

Rendra also took part in the search mission for victims of AirAsia flight 8501, which crashed into the Java Sea in December 2014. He said the AirAsia evacuation was relatively less challenging as the ocean floor had mostly consisted of unobtrusive sand.

"The only thing that never changes in these kinds of rescue missions is the sight of lifeless human bodies. It disturbed me once. But nowadays, I personally see [rescue operations] as an invaluable opportunity for me to redeem my sins," he said.

Civilian divers taking part in such missions are coordinated by the search and rescue unit of Basarnas, which has only about 3,600 personnel serving across the country.

The division outsources skilled search and rescue divers from various institutions such as the Transportation Ministry and the Indonesian Military (TNI), as well as civilian communities such as Indonesia Divers.

Division head First Marshal Indra Jaya said civilian assistance had always been essential to national search and rescue efforts.

"We never call them when we need their help; they are always the first ones to reach out to us and volunteer."

As of Tuesday, Basarnas has deployed 176 outsourced divers to locate and retrieve the remaining crash victims.

Basarnas operations deputy Nugroho Budi Wiryanto said 184 body bags had been retrieved as of Tuesday evening. The Kramat Jati Police Hospital, meanwhile, has identified 44 passengers from the retrieved bodies, 33 of whom are male and 11 female.

The victims' families participated in a mass prayer on board two Navy ships in the Java Sea on Tuesday morning, a day before Basarnas is set to decide whether it would extend the search for the remaining victims and the cockpit voice recorder (CVR).

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