Wednesday, December 31, 2014




William Wan, Daniela Deane and Brian Murphy

Dec. 30, 2014 An unidentified object, found during a search and rescue operation by the Indonesian Air Force for the missing AirAsia plane, floats in the ocean off the coast of Pangkalan Bun, Borneo, Indonesia. Kenarel/European Pressphoto Agency 

BEIJING — Recovery teams pulled wreckage and bodies from the sea off Indonesia on Tuesday after an intensive three-day search finally yielded the grim fate of a missing passenger jet that plunged from storm-laced skies with 162 people aboard.  Officials from the carrier AirAsia confirmed the debris was from the plane that disappeared Sunday moments after the pilot asked to climb to a higher altitude in an apparent attempt to avoid rough weather.  “We are sorry to be here today under these tragic circumstances,” said AirAsia executive Sunu Widyatmoko in a statement issued in the Indonesian city of Surabaya where the plane departed for Singapore.  Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, thanked the international effort mobilized for the search, and then shifted his comments to the grieving families.  “I feel your loss,” he said.  

AirAsia confirmed Tuesday that bodies and debris seen floating in the Java Sea were from the jet that went missing on Sunday. (AP)  Even as bodies and various flotsam were pulled aboard ships, experts prepared for the next step: trying to reach what was left of the Airbus A320-200 in waters up to 100 feet deep.  Indonesia authorities said divers and sonar-equipped ships headed to the site, about 100 miles southeast of the coast of Borneo. The top goal was recovery of the plane’s flight recorder, the so-called black box, in hopes of gaining clues on the cause of the crash.
Indonesia’s search-and-rescue chief, Bambang Soelistyo, said the effort has been complicated by waves up to 10 feet high.  A former accident investigator, John Cox, said the recorder — if found — would likely be analyzed by experts in countries such as the United States or Australia, working alongside Indonesian authorities. It could take several days to fully study the data, he added.  “In those boxes will be story of what brought down the AirAsia flight,” said Cox, a former captain for US Airways and now chief executive of the Washington-based consulting firm Safety Operating Systems.

Among the critical questions is whether Flight 8501 broke up during flight or hit the water intact.  “It’s important to know because that tells you whether it was a force like a storm that destroyed the airplane in air or if it was a matter of the pilots losing control and never able to recover from it,” said Australia-based aviation security expert Desmond Ross.

    The known route of AirAsia Flight 8501

One possible advantage for investigators was the relative shallow seabed and its proximity to shipping lanes, which likely means extensive knowledge of currents that could carry the flight recorde which are waterproof and fitted with an electronic tracking signal.  “My guess is we’ll know what happened within a week,” said David Gallo, an American oceanographer and co-expedition leader of the investigation into the 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447 which went down in the open Atlantic with 228 people aboard and sunk more than 13,000 feet. It took more nearly two years to recover the black box.

(RELATED: AirAsia flight overshoots runway at Philippine airport during landing.) 

As night fell Tuesday, it was unclear how many bodies had been spotted. At least three were recovered and placed on an Indonesian warship, said the rescue operations chief Soelistyo.  A spokesman for the country’s navy, Manahan Simorangkir, said an earlier report that more than 40 bodies were recovered was incorrect and blamed on a “miscommunication” by his staff, the AFP news agency reported.  The lack of extensive body recoveries could mean that many remained in the cabin.  In the Air France crash, the largest number of bodies found were still in the submerged fuselage, said Gallo. 

Meanwhile, an array of debris was carried to Indonesian ports: A portable oxygen tank, a light blue wheeled suitcase, a portion of the inner layer of the aircraft cabin.  At the Surabaya airport, about 400 miles southeast of Jakarta, relatives of those on the flight broke down in tears as television images showed the recovery a body, bloated by the sun and sea. Some hugged or collapsed in anguish. One man was carried out on a stretcher.
The TV images drew strong condemnation online. The station, TvOne, quickly apologized and subsequently blurred out video of the corpse at sea.  Nearly all the passengers and crew were Indonesians — some making year-end holiday trips to Singapore.  “Words cannot express how sorry I am,” wrote AirAsia’s CEO, Tony Ferdandes, in a tweet.

The debris field was first spotted about six miles from the flight’s last known coordinates.
In a cruel twist, some rescuers believed they saw people waving for help. It turned out to be the sea swells tossing lifeless arms.  “When we approached closer [we saw] they were already dead,” said Lt. Tri Wibowo, co-pilot of an Air Force Hercules C130 involved in the search effort, according to the Indonesian newspaper Kompas. 

The spotters on the plane also saw what looked like a shadow on the seabed in the shape of a plane.  Indonesian authorities said Monday they believed the plane was lying at the bottom of the sea, prompting a request to the United States, Britain and France for more advanced equipment.

The Pentagon said that details of that assistance were being worked out, but it would probably include “air, surface and sub-surface detection capabilities.”  In a statement issued late Monday, search officials said they have deployed 12 helicopters, 11 planes and 32 ships, including assets from Malaysia, Singapore and Australia, with more than 1,100 personnel involved. Even fishing boats were tapped in the widespread search.  The U.S. Navy said the USS Sampson, a guided-missile destroyer that is already in the region, would join the search later Tuesday.

Until the discoveries Tuesday, the frustrating maritime search were eerily similar to those in the case of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared over the Indian Ocean in March. The whereabouts of the plane, with 239 people aboard, are still a mystery.  “Reality is so cruel,” said Jiang Hui, a salesman in Beijing whose 70-year-old mother was on the Malaysia Airlines flight. “I feel so much for the families of the AirAsia flight. I have been in their place for the last 10 months.”  A statement from Malaysia Airlines extended “deepest sympathies” to the families of the AirAsia passengers and crew.

For the moment, the last moments of the AirAsia flight offer the only hint of what may have happened.  According to Indonesia’s state-owned navigation provider, AirNav, the pilot asked air traffic control at 6:12 a.m. on Sunday for permission to turn left to avoid bad weather. Permission was granted, the Jakarta Post reported.  The pilot then asked to climb from 32,000 to 38,000 feet, but did not explain why. Jakarta’s air-traffic control conferred with Singapore-based counterparts and agreed to allow the plane to move to 34,000 feet because a second ­AirAsia flight, 8502, was flying at 38,000 feet. But by the time air-traffic controllers relayed the permission to climb at 6:14 a.m., there was no reply.

Deane reported from London and Murphy from Washington.  William Wan is The Post’s China correspondent based in Beijing. He served previously as a religion reporter and diplomatic correspondent.  Daniela Deane was a reporter in four countries in Europe and Asia and a foreign affairs writer in Washington before she joined the Post. She now writes about breaking foreign news from both London and Rome.  Brian Murphy joined the Post after more than 20 years as a foreign correspondent and bureau chief for the Associated Press in Europe and the Middle East. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has written three books.

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