SURABAYA, Dec 31 – Bad weather hampered efforts Wednesday to recover scores of bodies from the crash site of AirAsia Flight QZ8501, as distraught relatives waited for news and gave their DNA to help identify loved ones.
Although officials promised a huge recovery operation, rough conditions made it difficult for helicopters to fly over the area in the Java Sea where several bodies and debris from the ill-fated Airbus A320-200 were found a day earlier.
In Indonesia’s second-biggest city Surabaya, where the plane had departed for Singapore early on Sunday, drained and emotional relatives of the 162 people on board gathered at a crisis centre to hand over documents and medical records.
Among them was Hadi Widjaja, 60, who was preparing a Muslim funeral for his son Andreas and daughter-in-law Enny Wahyuni.
“I am anxious to know if the rescuers have found their bodies. The president has said that they will do the best they can to find them,” Widjaja told AFP.
“But if they really cannot find them, I will scatter flowers in the sea here as a way to say goodbye.”
Police in Surabaya said they had taken DNA from 30 immediate family members to assist with the identification of bodies, which is set to take place at a hospital in Surabaya.
Storms had forced search teams to suspend their operations early on Wednesday. Helicopters were later sent out as the weather cleared, but some returned again to the base in Pangkalan Bun, the town with the nearest airstrip to the crash site.
– ‘We turned back’ –
“For the safety reasons, we turned back,” helicopter pilot Tatang Onne Setiawan told AFP.
“Besides the evacuation of the bodies, we also planned to search for bigger parts of the plane.”
A search and rescue official at Pangkalan Bun, Sunarbowo Sandi, told reporters they had recovered a total of seven bodies.
Debris found so far from the aircraft, which crashed into the Java Sea southwest of the island of Borneo during a storm, included an exit door and a blue suitcase.
During Tuesday’s searches, an air force plane saw a “shadow” on the seabed believed to be the missing plane, where all search efforts were now being concentrated, National Search and Rescue Agency chief Bambang Soelistyo said.
Soelistyo said they were also hunting for the plane’s black boxes, which are key to determining the cause of the crash.
“We have concerns to secure the flight recorders, believed to be with parts of the plane we haven’t found,” he said.
Britain’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch said it was helping in the search for the recorders, sending one of its investigators to meet with experts in Singapore, who are assisting the Indonesians.
Before take-off the pilot had asked for permission to fly at a higher altitude to avoid the storm but his request was not approved due to other planes above him on the popular route, according to AirNav, Indonesia’s air traffic control.
In his last communication, the pilot said he wanted to change course to avoid the menacing storm system. Then all contact was lost, about 40 minutes after the plane had taken off.
– ‘Unique weather conditions’ –
“There were some very unique weather conditions and let’s wait for the investigation to be concluded,” AirAsia’s flamboyant boss Tony Fernandes told reporters on Tuesday in Surabaya, after meeting with relatives.
“This is a scar with me for the rest of my life,” he said, describing the incident as an airline chief executive’s “worst nightmare”.
The missing plane was operated by AirAsia Indonesia, a unit of Malaysian-based AirAsia, which had previously earned a solid safety record.
Of the 162 passengers and crew on board Flight QZ8501, 155 were Indonesian.
President Joko Widodo also met the victims’ families in Surabaya on Tuesday and promised “a massive search” with priority to recovering bodies of the passengers and crew.
Relatives began crying hysterically and fainting as Indonesian television footage showed a body floating in the sea during aerial searches.
The Pentagon said the US Navy planned to send a second ship to help search for the wreckage, with Australia, Singapore, South Korea and Malaysia also taking part.
China, which had 152 citizens on board Malaysia Airlines MH370 — the flight that vanished in March — also offered to send a frigate and military aircraft to help with the search.
The crash comes at the end of an awful year for Malaysian air travel.
After the disappearance of Flight MH370, en route from from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew, another Malaysia Airlines flight — MH17 — was shot down over Ukraine in July, killing all 298 on board.