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Aviation

Indonesian President Joko Widodo vows all-night search for Lion Air wreckage as all 189 passengers and crew feared dead

  • Boeing-737 MAX had been grounded just months ago for repairs, says airline’s chief executive
PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 October, 2018, 10:26am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2018, 5:30am

Indonesian rescuers on Monday night continued scouring the waters off Jakarta for the wreckage and black box of a Lion Air plane carrying 189 people that crashed in the wee hours of the morning, soon after the almost-brand-new Boeing 737 Max 8 took flight.

At a crisis centre set up at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, a grim-faced President Joko Widodo said he had ordered various authorities to conduct a round-the-clock search and for the National Transportation Safety Committee, known as KNKT, to thoroughly investigate why Lion Air flight JT610 plunged into the sea.

“I have ordered the search and rescue agency, the police, the military, and transport ministry to keep looking for the main wreckage … overall there are 15 rescue boats,” Widodo said on Monday evening.

“I also have ordered them to work tonight, to work 24 hours using lights to speed up the search efforts, especially for the body of the plane.”

The KNKT, Widodo said, had accepted help from the Singapore government to find the plane’s black box.

“We understand what it must feel like for the families and relatives of the passengers who are waiting for information, especially from Basarnas [Indonesia’s search and rescue agency],” Widodo said.

No one has been found alive and Basarnas operational director Bambang Suryo Aji told reporters there were probably no survivors.

Rescuers said they recovered some human remains from the crash site, about 15km off the coast, and placed them in nine body bags.

“The victims that we found, their bodies were no longer intact and it’s been hours so it is likely 189 people have died,” Bambang told reporters as dusk fell.

About 40 divers were among the 150 or so personnel deployed to the scene of the crash, with the plane in water about 30-40 metres deep. But due to low visibility, their operations ended at about 5pm, said West Java police chief Agung Budi Maryoto.

Rescuers were also using an underwater drone to search for the plane’s fuselage, where victims are believed to be trapped. Basarnas official Deden Ridwansyah said authorities were focusing on an area about 1 nautical mile in radius based on debris found on the water and floodlights would be used to search through the night.

The Lion Air flight was en route to Pangkal Pinang, capital of the Bangka-Belitung tin mining region.

The pilot had asked to return to base (RTB) after the plane took off from Jakarta at 6.20am local time. It lost contact with ground staff after 13 minutes. No distress signal was received from its emergency transmitter.

“An RTB was requested and had been approved but we’re still trying to figure out the reason,” Soerjanto Tjahjono, the head of KNKT, told reporters.

“We hope the black box is not far from the main wreckage so it can be found soon,” he said, referring to the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder.

Soerjanto said Singapore had sent three officials and advanced equipment to help with search operations.

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According to Lion Air, a fast-growing low-cost carrier with a patchy safety record, the aircraft had been in operation since August. It had a technical problem on a flight from the resort island of Bali to Jakarta but this was “resolved according to procedure”, said Edward Sirait, chief executive of Lion Air Group.

Sirait declined to specify the nature of the issue but said none of its other aircraft of that model had the same problem. Lion had operated 11 Boeing 737 MAX 8s and it had no plan to ground the rest of them, he said.

The accident is the first to be reported involving the widely sold Boeing 737 MAX, an updated, more fuel-efficient version of the manufacturer’s workhorse single-aisle jet. Earlier this year, Lion Air announced it was buying 50 Boeing 737 MAX 10 jets for US$6.24 billion.

The airline said the pilot, an Indian national, and his co-pilot had altogether accumulated 11,000 hours of flying time. In addition to the pilot, an Italian citizen was also listed on the flight manifest, together with at least 23 government officials, many from the Finance Ministry.

In photos circulating online, Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati was shown comforting tearful relatives who had gathered at the Jakarta airport hoping for positive news.

Images filmed at Pangkal Pinang’s main airport showed families of passengers crying and hugging each other, with some yelling “Oh God”.

“This morning, he called asking about our youngest son,” said a sobbing Ermayati, referring to her 45-year-old husband Muhammed Syafii, who was on board.

Lion Air said that it has flown 166 family members from Pangkal Pinang to Jakarta, and was putting them up in free accommodation near a hospital, where identification of human remains would take place from Tuesday.

The privately-owned company founded by two Indonesian-Chinese brothers in 1999 said that it took responsibility for what had happened and “is committed to the ministerial regulations” that dictate an airline’s conduct in air accidents.

In a statement, Boeing said it was deeply saddened by the loss and was ready to provide technical help in the investigation.

China’s official Xinhua news agency said China Minsheng Investment Group Leasing Holdings Ltd. owned the plane and was extremely sad about the accident. The company said it was a common practice for airlines to obtain large aircraft through leasing arrangements with third companies.

Under international rules, the US National Transportation Safety Board will help with the inquiry, backed up by technical advisers from Boeing and US-French engine maker CFM International, co-owned by General Electric and Safran.

History of Indonesia’s Lion Air blighted by deadly accident in 2004, near misses and poor management

Data from FlightRadar24 shows that the first sign of trouble was about two minutes into the flight, when the plane had reached 2,000 feet (610m).

It descended more than 500 feet (152m) and veered to the left before climbing again to 5,000 feet (1,524m), where it stayed for most of the rest of the flight.

It began gaining speed in the final moments and reached 345 knots (397mph) before data was lost at 3,650 feet (1,113m).

Indonesia’s air travel industry is booming, with the number of domestic passengers growing significantly over the past decade, but it has acquired a reputation for poor regulation and its airlines were until recently banned from US and European airspace.

Lion Air was only allowed to resume flights to Europe in June 2016, though national carrier Garuda Indonesia had its ban lifted in 2009. Before Monday’s crash, Lion Air had not reported a fatal accident since 2004, when 25 people died when the DC-9 they were on crashed amid heavy rain in Solo in Central Java.

Indonesia’s worst air disaster was in 1997, when a Garuda Indonesia A300 crashed in the city of Medan, killing 214 people.