Huge waves hamper recovery after debris and bodies found

JAKARTA - Massive swells halted recovery efforts as the Indonesian authorities fished out at least three bodies from the doomed Indonesia AirAsia Flight QZ8501 that ended in the Java Sea, causing relatives of those on board to break down as hopes of any survivors faded.

"Today we (retrieved) three bodies and they are now in the warship Bung Tomo," Mr Bambang Soelistyo, head of Indonesia's rescue agency Basarnas, said in Jakarta. Two of the bodies were female.

Relatives of the 162 passengers and crew aboard the Airbus A-320 aircraft burst into tears and some fainted as the news was announced on TV shortly after lunchtime. Reports had suggested initially that as many as 40 bodies had been recovered.

"Based on the navy radio, it has been reported that the warship Bung Tomo has retrieved 40 bodies and the number is growing," Mr Manahan Simorangkir, an Indonesian navy spokesman, had told Agence France-Presse.

The navy later called it a miscommunication.

The red-and-white liveried twin-engine jet, flying at 32,000 feet, had vanished from the skies early on Sunday morning, minutes after it asked for permission to go higher to avoid monsoonswollen clouds as it sped from Surabaya to Singapore. It has now been identified as a shadow on the seabed off Kalimantan island.

With the search joined by three nations, the Indonesian authorities located the first debris - life jackets and a floating part - yesterday morning. A short while later, the first bodies - some bloated - were spotted in the sea.

The water is not too deep in the area, raising hopes that the crucial flight data recorders of the plane can soon be recovered and offer clues to the reasons behind the crash.

"We thank our neighbours - Singapore, Malaysia, Australia - for helping in the search operations," said Indonesian President Joko Widodo. "With families of victims, I share the feelings of loss. We all pray for the families of the victims to stay strong."

The find brings an element of closure to relatives of those on board. But it raises fresh questions of aviation safety in a nation enjoying a massive boom in air travel. It also caps a horrible year for Malaysia-linked airlines, which have suffered three aircraft losses over the past 10 months, including the loss of two Boeing 777s owned by Malaysia Airlines.

Indonesia AirAsia is 49 per cent owned by Malaysia's AirAsia Group, run by feisty entrepreneur Tony Fernandes. Yesterday, an AirAsia flight skidded off the runway in Kalibo, Philippines, causing the airport to suspend flights.

"My heart is filled with sadness for all the families involved in QZ8501," Mr Fernandes said on Twitter. "On behalf of AirAsia, my condolences to all. Words cannot express how sorry I am."

Rescue agency Basarnas said the wreckage is located some 160km south-west of the town of Pangkalan Bun in Central Kalimantan.

Three Indonesian vessels were on site and were soon to be joined by a frigate, corvette and landing ship tank sent by Singapore.

Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said the MV Swift Rescue will also set sail to join the operation, which was halted last night amid 3m high waves.

"We will resume the (recovery) process even if it is late at night once the waves subside," said Mr Soelistyo. "We will work with flare lights from the ships to illumine the area."

The dead will be first ferried to Pangkalan Bun, then taken for identification in Surabaya before being handed to relatives.

With little chance of finding survivors, the loss of Flight QZ8501 could raise the tally of people who have died in air accidents this year to nearly 670, the highest in four years.

In a Facebook post last night, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he was deeply saddened to learn of the fate of the flight. "It is always difficult and painful when a disaster like this happens. More so when it is so close to home, with many of the passengers having ties to Singapore," he wrote.

This article was first published on Dec 31, 2014.
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