Bodies, debris found as AirAsia plane believed found in sea

Bayu Ismoyo
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A member of the Indonesian air force carries an item retrieved from the Java Sea during search and rescue operations for the missing AirAsia flight QZ8501, in Pangkalan Bun, Central Kalimantan, on December 30, 2014

Bodies were recovered and wreckage was spotted in the sea off Indonesia in the hunt for a missing AirAsia passenger plane Tuesday, prompting raw scenes of emotion from sobbing relatives of the 162 people on board.

The Airbus A320-200 disappeared en route from Indonesia's second largest city Surabaya to Singapore during a storm early Sunday.

All indications now are that it crashed in the Java Sea southwest of the island of Borneo, with debris including an exit door and a blue suitcase, and bodies retrieved from the area.

An air force plane saw a "shadow" on the seabed believed to be that of the missing Flight QZ8501, National Search and Rescue Agency chief Bambang Soelistyo told a news conference in Jakarta.

Relatives of the missing hugged each other and burst into tears in Surabaya as they watched footage of one body floating in the sea on a television feed of Soelistyo's press conference.

Later Tuesday the search chief said just three bodies had been recovered so far, after another official said 40 had been found.

Navy spokesman Manahan Simorangkir told AFP earlier that according to naval radio a warship had recovered more than 40 bodies from the sea. But he later said that report was a miscommunication by his staff.

The search was called off for the night due to rough weather.

- 'Can't bring him back to life' -

Initial news of the debris dimmed the faint hopes of relatives.

"If that news is true, what can I do? I cannot bring him back to life," said Dwijanto, 60, whose son was on the plane along with five colleagues.

"My heart will be totally crushed if it's true. I will lose a son," he said.

Search chief Soelistyo said all efforts were now being concentrated on the location where the "shadow" and debris had been found, around 160 kilometres (100 miles) southwest of the town of Pangkalan Bun in Central Kalimantan on Borneo island.

The town has the nearest airstrip and is not far from the plane's last known position.

Late Tuesday Airbus confirmed it was "informed by the Indonesian authorities that the accident site of flight QZ 8501 has been located".

President Joko Widodo praised the search teams and said three warships were heading to the location.

"Tomorrow there will be a massive search by the ships and helicopters," he said after flying over the area and visiting Pangkalan Bun.

"I would like to thank our close friends, the countries who have helped the search from Singapore, Malaysia and Australia," he said.

"And for the families of the passengers and crew, I also feel the loss from this tragedy and we all pray for the families to be given fortitude and strength to face this tragedy," he said at a brief appearance in Surabaya between meeting relatives.

AirAsia's flamboyant chief executive Tony Fernandes also rushed to Surabaya after news of the debris.

"It's an experience I never dreamt of happening and it's probably an airline CEO's worst nightmare," he said.

Expressing grief over the first fatal incident to hit the region's biggest budget airline, Fernandes said at least there was some closure for the relatives.

"Words can't express what they are going through," he said.

Indonesian officials had already been preparing relatives for the worst, with Soelistyo saying Monday it was likely the plane was at "the bottom of the sea", based on its estimated position.

The aircraft lost contact early on Sunday about 40 minutes after takeoff, after the crew requested a change of flight plan due to stormy weather, in the third crisis for a Malaysian carrier this year.

In his last communication, the pilot said he wanted to avoid a menacing storm system. Then all contact was lost.

Before take-off the pilot had asked for permission to fly at a higher level to avoid the storm but his request was not approved due to heavy traffic on the popular route, according to AirNav, Indonesia's flight navigation service.

In his final communication, the pilot asked to alter his course and repeated his original request to ascend to avoid the bad weather.

"The pilot requested to air traffic controllers to deviate to the left side due to bad weather, which was immediately approved," AirNav safety director Wisnu Darjono told AFP.

"After a few seconds the pilot requested to ascend from 32,000 to 38,000 feet but could not be immediately approved as some planes were flying above it at that time," he said.

"Two to three minutes later when the controller was going to give a clearance to a level of 34,000, the plane did not give any response," Darjono said.

- International response -

China, which had 152 citizens on board Malaysia Airlines MH370 which vanished in March, offered to send a frigate and military aircraft to help with the international search.

The US Navy also plans to send a second ship to help search for wreckage, the Pentagon said Tuesday. An American destroyer, the USS Sampson, has already deployed to the area.

Australia, Singapore, South Korea and Malaysia have all sent assets to help Indonesia in the search.

The missing plane was operated by AirAsia Indonesia, a unit of Malaysian-based AirAsia. Of the 162 passengers and crew, 155 were Indonesian.

The crash comes at the end of a disastrous year for Malaysian aviation.

Flight MH370 disappeared while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew, and in July another Malaysia Airlines flight -- MH17 -- was shot down over unrest-hit Ukraine, killing all 298 on board.