Storms delay search for jet crash victims

Sailors from the US Navy's USS Fort Worth searching in the Java Sea for AirAsia Flight QZ8501

By Fergus Jensen

divers trying to identify sunken wreckage from a crashed AirAsia passenger jet had to abort their mission due to bad weather and a continuing lack of signals from the plane's black box.

Indonesian officials said tropical storms probably contributed to last Sunday's crash and the weather has persistently hampered efforts to recover bodies and find the cockpit voice and flight data recorders that may explain why the Airbus A320-200 plunged into the sea.

"Conditions did not allow diving operations," the head of Indonesia's search and rescue agency, Fransiskus Bambang Soelistyo, said yesterday. "Our priority is to dive in the location we suspect parts of the plane to be."


The jet crashed into the Java Sea about 40 minutes after taking off en route for Singapore. There were no survivors.

The main focus of the search is about 90 nautical miles off the coast of Borneo island, where five large objects believed to be parts of the plane have been pinpointed.

"Based on past experience, the black box is not far from the plane debris we have found," Soelistyo said. But he added that none of the searching ships had detected any "pings", the locator signals the black box should transmit after a crash.

Until investigators can examine the black box recorders the cause of the crash remains a mystery, but the area is known for intense seasonal storms.

The suspected wreckage is lying in water around 30 metres deep, which experts say should make it relatively straightforward to recover.

Nine ships from four countries have converged on the area, but strong winds and four-metre high waves have kept progress agonisingly slow.

Thirty-four bodies of the mostly Indonesian passengers and crew have so far been recovered, including some still strapped in their seats. Many more may be still trapped in the fuselage of the aircraft.

"This big part of the plane, we still have hope that victims are still inside," said Soelistiyo, adding that he was referring to one of the five objects found.

Relatives of the 162 people on board sought strength in prayer as emotionally exhausted family members sang and cried at a tiny chapel in Surabaya, the city where Flight 8501 departed from on December 28.

The Rev Philip Mantofa of the Mawar Sharon Church - where more than a quarter of the victims were members - urged those gathered to find comfort in their faith.

Just before losing contact, the pilot told air traffic control he was approaching threatening clouds, but was denied permission to climb higher because of heavy air traffic.

Surabaya, Indonesia's second-largest city, has been gripped by grief as bodies, one by one, continue arriving in simple, numbered coffins after being pulled from the water.

Round-the-clock coverage of the disaster has reignited fear of flying for some in a country that has suffered a string of accidents in recent years, as new airlines pop up to meet booming demand in Indonesia, a sprawling archipelago nation of 250 million people.

While Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, many of the plane's passengers were Christians of Chinese descent. The Rev Mantofa's congregation was hit particularly hard, with 45 of the crash victims - belonging to his large Pentecostal church.