DEWI NURCAHYANI, Associated Press ROBIN McDOWELL, Associated Press
PANGKALAN BUN, Indonesia (AP) — A massive hunt for the 162 victims of AirAsia Flight 8501 resumed in the Java Sea on Wednesday, with the recovery of six bodies, including a flight attendant identified by her trademark red uniform. But wind, strong currents and high surf hampered recovery efforts as distraught family members anxiously waited to identify their loved ones.
Three bodies were retrieved Tuesday, while the others were found after the search resumed Wednesday morning, said Indonesia’s Search and Rescue Agency chief Henry Bambang Soelistyo. On Tuesday, the number had varied with different officials saying as many as six corpses had been discovered.
He said half of those found were male and half female, including the flight attendant. He added that underwater sonar identified what appeared to be large parts of the plane.
The first proof of the jet’s fate emerged Tuesday in an area not far from where it dropped off radar screens on Sunday morning. Searchers found the bodies and debris that included a life jacket, an emergency exit door and a suitcase about 10 miles from the plane’s last known coordinates.
On Wednesday, divers were deployed, but heavy rain and clouds grounded helicopters, said Soelistyo.
The airliner’s disappearance halfway through a two-hour flight between Surabaya, Indonesia, and Singapore triggered an international search for the aircraft involving dozens of planes, ships and helicopters. It is still unclear what brought the plane down.
The plane needs to be located and its cockpit voice and flight data recorders, or black boxes, recovered before officials can start determining what caused the crash.
Images of the debris and a bloated body shown on Indonesian television sent a spasm of anguish through the room at the Surabaya airport where relatives awaited news. Some have given blood for DNA tests and submitted photos of their loved ones along with identifying information, such as tattoos or birth marks that could help make the process easier.
The first sign of the jet turned up about 10 miles (16 kilometers) from its last known coordinates. Parts of the interior, including the oxygen tank, were brought to the nearest town, Pangkalan Bun. Another find included a bright blue plastic suitcase, completely unscratched.
“I know the plane has crashed, but I cannot believe my brother and his family are dead,” said Ifan Joko, who lost seven family members, three of them children, as they traveled to Singapore to ring in the new year. “We still pray they are alive.”
The corpses were spotted about 160 kilometers (100 miles) from Central Kalimantan province.
Rescue workers descended on ropes from a hovering helicopter to retrieve bodies. Efforts were hindered by 2-meter (6-foot) waves and strong winds, National Search and Rescue Director SB Supriyadi said.
The first body was later picked up by a navy ship. Officials said as many as six others followed, but they disagreed about the exact number.
Supriyadi was on the aircraft and saw what appeared to be more wreckage under the water, which was clear and a relatively shallow 20 to 30 meters (65 to 100 feet).
When TV broadcast an image of a half-naked man floating in the water, a shirt partially covering his head, many of the family members screamed and wailed uncontrollably. One middle-aged man collapsed and had to be carried out on a stretcher.
About 125 family members had planned to travel to Pangkalan Bun to start identifying their loved ones, but Surabaya airport general manager Trikora Hardjo later said the trip was canceled after authorities suggested they stay to avoid slowing down the operation. Body bags and coffins have been prepared at three hospitals in Pangkalan Bun. Dozens of elite military divers also joined the search.
Malaysia-based AirAsia’s loss comes on top of the still-unsolved disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in March with 239 people aboard, and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July over Ukraine, which killed all 298 passengers and crew.
Nearly all the passengers and crew were Indonesians, who are frequent visitors to Singapore, particularly on holidays.
Haidar Fauzie, 60, said his youngest child and only daughter, Khairunnisa Haidar, was a flight attendant who had worked with AirAsia for two years.
On learning about the crash, he struggled to console his grieving wife. They last saw their child six weeks ago, when she returned home on holiday.
“From the start, we already knew the risks associated with being a stewardess,” Fauzie said. “She is beautiful and smart. It has always been her dream to fly. We couldn’t have stopped her.”
AirAsia group CEO Tony Fernandes, the airline’s founder and public face and a constant presence in Indonesia since the tragedy started unfolding, said he planned to travel to the recovery site on Wednesday.
“I have apologized profusely for what they are going through,” he said of his contact with relatives. “I am the leader of this company, and I have to take responsibility. That is why I’m here. I’m not running away from my obligations.”
The jet’s last communication indicated the pilots were worried about bad weather. They sought permission to climb above threatening clouds but were denied because of heavy air traffic. Four minutes later, the jet disappeared from the radar without issuing a distress signal.
Associated Press writers Niniek Karmini, Ali Kotarumalos and Margie Mason in Jakarta and Eileen Ng in Surabaya, Indonesia, contributed to this report.