Indonesian rescuers pulled out body parts, pieces of clothing and scraps of metal from the Java Sea early on Sunday morning, a day after a Boeing 737-500 with 62 people onboard crashed shortly after takeoff from Jakarta, officials said.
Officials were hopeful they were honing in on the wreckage of Sriwijaya Air Flight 182 after sonar equipment detected a signal from the aircraft.
Transportation Minister Budi Karya Sumadi told reporters that authorities have launched tremendous search efforts after identifying “the possible location of the crash site”.
“These pieces were found by the SAR team between Lancang Island and Laki Island,” the head of the National Search and Rescue Agency, Bagus Puruhito, in a statement.
Indonesian military chief Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto said teams on the Rigel navy ship equipped with a remote-operated vehicle had detected a signal from the aircraft, which fit the coordinates from the last contact made by the pilots before the plane went missing.
“We have immediately deployed our divers from navy’s elite unit to determine the finding to evacuate the victims,” Tjahjanto said.
More than 12 hours since the plane lost contact, little is known about what caused the crash. The nearly 27-year-old aircraft was much older than Boeing’s problem-plagued 737 MAX model, one of which crashed off Jakarta in late 2018, killing all 189 people on board the Lion Air flight.
Older 737 models are widely flown and do not have the system implicated in the MAX safety crisis.
“We are in contact with our airline customer and stand ready to support them during this difficult time,” Boeing said in a statement. “Our thoughts are with the crew, passengers, and their families.”
Meanwhile, fishermen in the area around Thousand Islands, a chain of islands north of Jakarta’s coast, reported hearing an explosion about 2:30pm (07:30 GMT) on Saturday.
“We heard something explode; we thought it was a bomb or a tsunami since after that we saw the big splash from the water,” fisherman Solihin, who goes by one name, told The Associated Press by phone.
“It was raining heavily and the weather was so bad. So, it is difficult to see around clearly. But we can see the splash and a big wave after the sounds. We were very shocked and directly saw the plane debris and the fuel around our boat.”
Authorities established two crisis centres, one at the airport and one at the port. Families gathered to wait for news of loved ones. The 62 people on board included seven children and three babies.
“I have four family members on the flight – my wife and three children,” Yaman Zai said as he waited at the Pontianak airport on Saturday night. “[My wife] sent me a picture of the baby today … How could my heart not be torn into pieces?” he said as he sobbed.
On social media, people began circulating the flight manifesto with photos and videos of those who were listed as passengers. One video shows a woman with her children waving goodbye while walking through the airport.
Sumadi, the transportation minister, said Flight SJ182 was delayed for an hour before it took off at 2:36pm (07:36 GMT). It disappeared from radar four minutes later, after the pilot contacted air traffic control to ascend to an altitude of 29,000 feet (8,839 metres), he said.
Sriwijaya Air President Director Jefferson Irwin Jauwena said the plane, which was previously used by airlines in the United States, was airworthy. He told reporters on Saturday that the plane had previously flown to Pontianak and Pangkal Pinang city on the same day.
“Maintenance report said everything went well and airworthy,” Jauwena told a news conference. He said the plane was delayed due to bad weather, not because of any damage.
Founded in 2003, Jakarta-based Sriwijaya Air group flies largely within Indonesia. The budget airline has had a solid safety record, with no on-board casualties in four incidents recorded on the Aviation Safety Network database.
In 2007, the European Union banned all Indonesian airlines following a series of crashes and reports of deteriorating oversight and maintenance since deregulation in the late 1990s. The restrictions were fully lifted in 2018.
Between 2007 and 2016, the US Federal Aviation Administration lowered its Indonesia safety evaluation to Category 2, meaning its regulatory system was inadequate.