Authorities ‘confident’ crashed Lion Air jet has been found, but currents and low visibility hamper recovery
- The accident, feared to have killed 189 people, has resurrected concerns about Indonesia’s patchy air-safety record
- Some 53 body bags filled with limbs and other remains have so far been recovered, authorities said on Wednesday
Indonesian authorities were confident they had located the body of the crashed Lion Air jet in the Java Sea on Wednesday, but said the strengths of the currents and low visibility were hampering recovery efforts.
Muhammad Syaugi, the head of the country’s search and rescue agency, or Basarnas, said one of the four ships deployed to scour an area of 15 nautical miles had a remotely operated underwater vehicle that detected the Boeing 737 Max 8’s fuselage amid other debris, including that of wooden ships.
“Pings”, or the signal from the plane’s flight recorder, were also detected but the currents were too intense for divers to properly investigate the area about 400 metres off the coast of Karawang, an area east of Jakarta.
“In that area, we saw life jackets, pants, clothes on the seabed, that’s why we are confident that the fuselage is also there. We hope tonight we will find it, including the black box … the black box is designed to last 90 days and it can be heard from a 3km radius,” Syaugi said in a late evening briefing to the media.
Military chief Hadi Tjahjanto said in-flight magazines were spotted among the sunken debris and when the underwater vehicle went closer, the currents caused the pages to turn.
“It shows the magazines hadn’t been there for long,” Hadi said.
Retrieving the black box will be key to helping investigators understand what caused the two-month-old plane, one of the world’s newest and most advanced commercial passenger jets, to crash with 189 passengers on board.
The box contains flight data that shows the speed, altitude and direction of the plane, while the cockpit voice recorder keeps track of conversations and other sounds in the cockpit.
There are no survivors and Syaugi said 53 body bags filled with human remains had been collected as of Wednesday and sent to a police hospital focused on doing DNA tests to identify victims.
Hadi said rescuers would borrow a crane from the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources to lift the plane’s hull. It would drop anchor on Thursday.
“We predict the fuselage is 32 metres deep and weighs 80 tonnes,” Hadi said.
Flight JT610 took off in the wee hours from Jakarta of Monday morning in clear weather. It was heading for Pangkal Pinang, a jumping-off point for tourists seeking beaches and sun on nearby Belitung island.
But it sped up as it suddenly lost altitude, as pilots asked to return to the airport. Then it vanished from radar 13 minutes after take-off, with witnesses saying the single-aisle jet plunged into the water.
The plane dropped from an altitude of about 4,850 feet (1,479 meters) in about 21 seconds. Based on what appears to be a high-speed dive into the water at about 350 miles an hour – far above the typical rate for a descent – the body of the plane might have broken up into pieces as it ploughed into the seabed, burying some of the crucial parts, according to Shadrach Nababan, a former investigator at Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Board.
Earlier on Wednesday, Indonesia’s transport minister Budi Karya Sumadi took the unusual step of ordering the temporary removal of Lion Air’s technical director and several other staff who cleared the flight, citing government authority over the aviation sector.
He later stressed that the measure meant to free up the technical director to help with the crash probe.
The airline also dismissed an engineer who cleared flight JT610 even after the pilots had reported technical issues with the aircraft during a trip a day before the crash. Lion Air on Monday said the unspecified issue had been fixed, calling it “normal procedure”.
The removals were ordered on recommendations from the National Transport Safety Board, the Transport Ministry said in a statement in Jakarta on Wednesday.
Boeing officials arrived in Indonesia on Wednesday to meet with the airline, while a special inspection of the Boeing 737 Max 8 planes ordered by the government showed no technical issues with the jets operated by Lion Air and PT Garuda Indonesia, the ministry said. The National Transport Safety Board said it found all 11 aircraft in service to be airworthy.
Other carriers in Asia that fly the plane indicated Boeing had not prompted them to take action. SilkAir, a unit of Singapore Airlines, said it was “closely monitoring developments” after the crash. India’s aviation safety regulator said Tuesday that it reviewed the performance of the six aircraft operated by local carriers and hadn’t found significant technical issues. Those planes have completed a cumulative 4,000 flight hours since their induction in June 2018, the regulator said.
Analysts maintained it was too early to determine what caused the accident but the Transport Ministry warned it would impose “strict sanctions” on Lion Air if a probe by the safety board proved negligence on the part of the airline.
‘I am going back home’: families share last stories of those aboard Indonesia’s crashed Lion Air flight
Rusdi Kirana, one of the two brothers who founded Lion Air, met with relatives of passengers in the morning and apologised to them. Rusdi, who resigned as the airline’s chief executive several years ago and is now Indonesia’s ambassador to Malaysia, said families of the victims, many of whom are from outside Jakarta, would get financial help to pay for their expenses.
“From tomorrow, we will give RP$5 million [US$329] for the cost of their living here,” he said, adding that the airline would also provide RP$25 million to families of victims whose bodies had been found, for funeral expenses.
Additional reporting by Bloomberg, AFP and AP