A grim search for answers – The Edge Review

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Fransiskus Bambang Soelistyo, head of Indonesia's search and rescue agency, updating media about the search mission for AirAsia flight QZ8501  (Photo Simon Roughneen)

Fransiskus Bambang Soelistyo, head of Indonesia’s search and rescue agency, updating media about the search mission for AirAsia flight QZ8501 (Photo Simon Roughneen)

JAKARTA – For Rudy Hendro and colleagues at Indonesia’s state search and rescue agency, it has been a draining, beleaguering couple of weeks.

Since AirAsia flight QZ8501 crashed into the Java Sea on the morning of Dec. 28, the orange-suited bosses at Basarnas, the state search and rescue agency, have led the effort to recover the doomed and jet and, most importantly, the bodies of the 162 people who were killed when the Airbus A320-200 went down nearly a fortnight ago, while en route to Singapore from Surabaya in East Java.

But choppy seas, dragging currents and debris-clogged muddy waters have continually hindered the multinational operation in the Karimata Strait, part of the Java Sea between Indonesia’s Bangka Belitung islands and Borneo, known as Kalimantan in Indonesia.

Despite the sea into which the aircraft plummeted being relatively shallow, only 40 victims’ bodies had been found by midweek. “The waves are above two meters, so it is difficult to operate,” explained Hendro, Director of Facilities at Basarnas. “We need to locate the big part of the aircraft,” he told The Edge Review, speaking at Basarnas headquarters in Jakarta.

By Wednesday, the day the aeroplane’s tail was first seen lying on the seabed, the cause of the crash still had not been established, but Indonesia’s Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency has said that bad weather appears to have been a factor.

Just before dropping off radar, QZ8501’s pilots spoke to air traffic control at 6.13am and asked to change course as the jet was approaching threatening clouds on what was a stormy morning, though finding out what transpired after that last radio contact requires locating the plane’s “black box” data recorder as well as more of the wreckage.

“The cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder are absolutely crucial to gaining an understanding of what happened to this aircraft,” said Greg Waldron of Flightglobal, an aviation sector website.

But as the search for the jet and the dead moved slowly, Indonesia’s government and regional airline Air Asia have become increasingly at odds over the downed aircraft.

Indonesia has long had a reputation for slack air safety, with state carrier Garuda previously banned from flying to Europe. In contrast, the Dec. 28 crash was the first for budget carrier AirAsia, since its establishment by Malaysian businessman Tony Fernandes in 2001.

Jakarta’s new Transport Minister Ignasius Jonan last week said that the crash would lead to tighter controls on airlines, while the ministry’s acting director general for air transportation Djoko Murdjatmojo said that AirAsia was not permitted to fly from Surabaya to Singapore on Sundays.

“Based on our observation, AirAsia did not fly in accordance with the schedule agreed with the government,” Djoko told media.

The government’s allegations prompted AirAsia to retort on Wednesday that “we have the right to fly Surabaya-Singapore. We had flown that schedule and had rights for seven days a week.”

“We have secured both slots as well as approval from both Indonesia and Singapore. What happened was purely an administrative error,” the airline added. AirAsia’s Indonesia branch said on Wednesday that it will offer bereaved families around $100,000 in compensation per passenger.

But for many of the families hoping to at least recover the remains of loved ones, time is running out. Rudy Hendro said that it is likely that the majority of the passengers went down with the jet after it crashed and sunk into the Java Sea, meaning that those remains should be recoverable once the main body of the jet is located.

“We need to find all parts soon so we can find all out guests to ease the pain of our families. That still is our priority,” tweeted AirAsia boss Tony Fernandes on Wednesday afternoon.

The 40 bodies recovered so far had all been found floating away from the sunken wreckage, with some still strapped to their seats. After 10-14 days, floating corpses, some of which could have already been pulled west from the crash sure by strong currents, will sink – meaning that it will be difficult to locate the remains of those who were not trapped in the body of the jet.

“We hope we still have time,” Hendro said. “More ships are coming from China, from France, to help”

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