Sat | Dec 10, 2016

Bad weather hobbles recovery

Published:Thursday | January 1, 2015 | 12:00 AM
A worker prepares coffins for the victims of AirAsia Flight 8501 at the main hospital in Pangkalan Bun, yesterday. - AP

PANGKALAN BUN, Indonesia (AP):

Bad weather hindered efforts to recover victims of AirAsia Flight 8501 on Wednesday and sent wreckage drifting far from the crash site, as grieving relatives prayed for strength to endure their losses.

"Help us, God, to move forward, even though we are surrounded by darkness," the Reverend Philip Mantofa, whose church lost about 40 members in the disaster, told families gathered in a waiting room at the Surabaya airport.

The massive hunt for 162 people who vanished Sunday aboard the Airbus A320 travelling from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore, was severely limited due to heavy rain, wind, and thick clouds. Seven bodies, including a flight attendant in her red AirAsia uniform, have been recovered, said Indonesian Search and Rescue Agency chief Henry Bambang Soelistyo.

Sonar images also identified what appeared to be large parts of the plane, but strong currents were moving the debris.

Conditions prevented divers from entering the choppy Java Sea, and helicopters were largely grounded. But 18 ships scoured the narrowed search area, and four of the seven corpses were recovered Wednesday before the search was called off for the day. Indonesia's Meteorology and Geophysics Agency predicted conditions would worsen, with more intense rains, through Friday.

"It seems all the wreckage found has drifted more than 50 kilometers (30 miles) from yesterday's location," said Vice Air Marshal Sunarbowo Sandi, search and rescue coordinator in Pangkalan Bun on Borneo island, the closest town to the site. "We are expecting those bodies will end up on beaches."

The airliner's disappearance halfway through the two-hour flight triggered an international search involving dozens of planes, ships and helicopters from numerous countries. It is still unclear what brought the plane down.

Its last communication indicated the pilots were worried about bad weather. They sought permission to climb above threatening clouds, but were denied because of heavy air traffic. Four minutes later, the jet disappeared from the radar without issuing a distress signal.

The aircraft's cockpit voice and flight data recorders, or black boxes, must be recovered before officials can start determining what caused the crash. Items recovered so far include a life jacket, an emergency exit window, children's shoes, a blue suitcase and backpacks filled with food.

Malaysia-based AirAsia's loss comes on top of the still-unsolved disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in March with 239 people aboard, and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July over Ukraine, which killed all 298 passengers and crew.

Simple wooden coffins - numbered 001 and 002 - with purple flowers on top contained the first two bodies, which were sent from Pangkalan Bun to Surabaya for autopsies. The two victims were a woman wearing blue jeans and a boy. The other five bodies - three male and two female - will remain on a warship until the weather clears.

Nearly all the passengers were Indonesian, and a large portion were Christians of Chinese descent. The country is predominantly Muslim, but sizeable pockets of people of other faiths are found throughout the sprawling archipelago. Around 10 per cent of those in Surabaya, the nation's second-largest city, are Christian.

On Wednesday, around 100 relatives gathered for the airport prayer service where Mantofa urged them to hold on to their faith, despite their pain. About 40 members of his Mawar Sharon Church died in the crash.

"Some things do not make sense to us, but God is bigger than all this," he said. "Our God is not evil."

Many family members had planned to travel to Pangkalan Bun, 160 kilometers (100 miles) from the area where bodies were first spotted, to start identifying their loved ones. However, Surabaya airport general manager Trikora Hardjo later said the trip was canceled after authorities suggested their presence could slow down the operation.

Instead, some relatives gave blood for DNA tests in Surabaya, where the bodies will be transported, and submitted photos of their loved ones along with identifying information such as tattoos or birthmarks that could help make the process easier.

In Surabaya, hundreds stood in a drizzle holding candles in a park.

"Let us pray for the grieving families of those on board the plane," Mayor Tri Rismaharini told the crowd. "Let us pray this will be the last tragedy for Surabaya."

- AP