Divers hunt for victims in crashed AirAsia jet's main body

PANGKALAN BUN, Indonesia - Indonesian divers on Thursday descended to the main body of an AirAsia jet that crashed last month, hoping to recover the bulk of the disaster's victims, a day after it was finally located by a navy ship.

Flight QZ8501 went down on December 28 in stormy weather during what was supposed to be a short trip from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore, with 162 people on board.

After a lengthy search often hampered by bad weather, a Singapore military vessel spotted the fuselage - the plane's main body - at the bottom of the Java Sea on Wednesday.

It is hoped that the main section contains most of the passengers and crew. So far just 50 bodies have been recovered.

Underwater photos taken by high-tech search equipment showed the fuselage and part of Malaysia-based AirAsia's motto, "Now Everyone Can Fly", painted on the plane's exterior.

Divers headed for the main section in the morning but bad weather and high waves meant they had to suspend the operation without being able to assess the condition of the wreckage, search and rescue agency official S.B Supriyadi told AFP.

Some divers descended again in the afternoon, he added.

National search and rescue chief Bambang Soelistyo has said that if divers had problems retrieving bodies from the wreckage while it is still on the seabed, officials would try to lift it.

The fuselage is attached to part of a wing, and the wreckage is 26m long.

Rescuers have already used giant balloons to lift the plane's tail out of the water, after it was found about two kilometres (1.2 miles) from the main body.

'I have new hope'

Farmer Aris Siswanto, whose wife's body has yet to be recovered, expressed relief that the fuselage had been found.

"I have waited anxiously for 19 days now without any certainty," the 42-year-old, who lives close to Surabaya, told AFP. "With the discovery of the fuselage, I feel like I have new hope, even if it is only the hope of seeing my wife's remains." MV Swift Rescue, the Singaporean ship that located the fuselage, was part of a huge international hunt that also included ships from the US and China.

Officials said the search was now being scaled back, with most international vessels leaving.

The discovery of the fuselage was the latest boost to the search effort following the retrieval this week of the jet's black boxes - the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder - which contain crucial information that should help determine why the plane went down.

The boxes, which are actually orange in colour, have been flown to Jakarta, where Indonesia's National Transportation Safety Committee is leading a probe into the accident, helped by experts from countries including France and the US.

The country's meteorological agency has said bad weather may have caused the crash but only the black boxes will be able to provide definitive answers.

The flight data recorder holds a wealth of information about every major part of the plane, with details such as the jet's speed and the direction it was heading in, while the cockpit voice recorder stores radio transmissions and sounds in the cockpit.

Safety committee head Tatang Kurniadi said that 174 hours of data had been downloaded from the flight data recorder, and two hours and four minutes from the cockpit voice recorder. The data must be converted into a usable format before the lengthy analysis process can begin.

Before take-off, the plane's pilot had asked for permission to fly at a higher altitude to avoid a major storm but the request was not approved due to other planes above him on the popular route.

In his last communication, the experienced pilot said he wanted to change course to avoid the storm. Then all contact was lost, about 40 minutes after take-off.

All but seven of those on board the flight were Indonesian.