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‘I am going back home’: families share last stories of those aboard Indonesia’s crashed Lion Air flight

  • Doctors in Jakarta are trying to identify passengers from 26 body bags of human remains. DNA results are expected within five days
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2018, 7:37pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2018, 8:42pm

When Chairul Aswan, 38, visited his older brother Dedi Onil last Saturday, he was bursting with news about a plan to compete in a bird-singing competition in Jakarta.

Chairul, a bird enthusiast, reared dozens of songbirds at home, and his excitement and preparation paid off – he and two of his friends won the contest, as his family saw from a WhatsApp photo of him holding a trophy.

At 4.25am on Monday, Chairul sent his brother, Dedi Onil, a text and a selfie from Soekarno-Hatta airport along with a final message: “I am going back home.”

His Lion Air flight took off from Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport at 6.20am on Monday. Flight JT 610, with 189 people on board, sped up as it suddenly lost altitude, and pilots asked air traffic controllers for permission to return to base.

Then, the Boeing-737 MAX vanished from radar 13 minutes after take-off. It fell from the sky and plunged into the water about 34 nautical miles northeast of the coast in the Java Sea.

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Indonesian search teams began recovering debris and body parts off the shore of Karawang, east of Jakarta, on Monday. Their search efforts continued on Tuesday, with human remains placed into body bags. Photos circulating online showed plane parts and sodden personal belongings – shoes, clothing and bags – placed on tarpaulins at the Jakarta International Container Terminal at Tanjung Priok.

Meanwhile, families of passengers who were aboard the flight gathered at the Disaster Victim Identification unit at a hospital in East Jakarta.

Some spoke to the doctor in charge of determining passengers’ identities from the remains. Children stood by their parents, while some families sat on the ground, most of them on the phone with their families in Pangkal Pinang, where the plane was headed. Among them was Dedi Onil, waiting for news of his brother Chairul.

Why did you have to go anyway?
Dedi Onil to his brother, Lion Air passenger Chairul Aswan

“He was hesitant to go [to Jakarta] because he had to leave his daughter,” Dedi told the Post.

“So I said to him, ‘Why do you have to go anyway?’ Some of his birds were still babies, they needed to be fed.” Chairul later told Dedi that his close friend, who ran a bird store in Pangkal Pinang, had bought him return tickets to Jakarta, so he had no choice but to go.

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Chairul, a member of the Pangkal Pinang fire service, was “sociable and he knew how to position himself among his friends”, recalled a tearful Dedi. “He told me he only brought clothes to Jakarta. If he had arrived at Pangkal Pinang, he would be picked up at the airport by his friends.”

Chairul was joined by his close friends Reo Yumitro – who owned a bird store in Pangkal Pinang – and Ery Cumpai. The three were bird aficionados who took part in numerous bird-singing competitions at home.

“The three friends were very generous, they were kind people,” Dedi said.

Chairul was the baby of a 12-sibling family in Pangkal Pinang, according to Dedi, who was the next youngest. Dedi came to Jakarta on Monday night with another brother, and the two were joined at the hospital by other relatives who live in Jakarta. Still at home is Chairul’s four year-old daughter, who keeps asking her mother about her father’s whereabouts.

“[She] keeps asking, ‘why hasn’t dad come home yet?’” Dedi said. “She was so close to her father.”

The family gave DNA samples from Chairul’s daughter – her hair, towel, and toothbrush – to the medical team.

The Disaster Victim Identification unit has received antemortem (or pre-death) data from 185 families – consisting of fingerprints, dental records, and other medical information – that will be matched with body parts collected by the search and rescue agency, while 72 families provided DNA samples. Two more body bags arrived at the unit today, bringing the total to 26; DNA test results will be announced in the next five days.

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“The antemortem data will be matched in a process that we called ‘reconciliation,’ for which a medical team of forensic experts, DNA experts, dentists, and body properties experts gather. The decision has to be unanimous, if an expert says the data doesn’t match then we will re-evaluate the whole process,” said Lisda Cancer, a member of the unit’s forensic team. “If all experts say that the antemortem data matches with a body part then we will announce the identification.”

Dedi said his family was hoping for a miracle that his little brother survived the crash. But the family also said they would accept his fate, as long as Chairul’s body is found.

“Even if they can only find his body parts, not his body, we will take whatever we can bring home and we will bury him in Pangkal Pinang,” Dedi said.