JAKARTA: Indonesian navy divers scouring the sea bed on Monday (Jan 11) were closing in on data recorders from a Sriwijaya Air jet that crashed at the weekend, as investigators took up the grim task of identifying victims’ mangled remains.
Finding the boxes – cockpit voice and flight data recorders – could offer crucial clues as to why the Sriwijaya Air Boeing 737-500 plunged about 10,000ft in less than a minute before slamming into the Java Sea.
The plane was headed on a domestic flight to Pontianak on Borneo island, about 740km from Jakarta, before it disappeared from radar screens.
Divers had further narrowed down the search area strongly suspected to be the location of the black boxes, a Navy spokesman, Fajar Tri Rohadi said.
Bayu Wardoyo, a rescue diver, told Kompas TV more human remains had been found on Monday and that underwater visibility was about 5m to 6m.
Underwater photos supplied by Indonesia’s navy showed a sea floor littered with wreckage.
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Body bags filled with human remains were sprayed with disinfectant at Jakarta’s main port before being taken to a police hospital. The police hospital has taken 40 DNA samples from the relatives of victims and other medical records to help with identification, officials said.
“The quicker we can find victims, the better,” search and rescue operation director Rasman MS told an earlier briefing, adding that the operation involved 2,600 personnel, 53 ships and aerial surveillance.
Nurcahyo Utomo, an investigator at Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee (KNKT), told Reuters the jet may have been intact before it hit the water, given the debris appeared to have scattered in a relatively tight area underwater.
He said KNKT had yet to speak to Sriwijaya Air’s management, but was collecting data on the plane and the pilots.
Rescuers have so far found one of the jet’s turbines, pieces of the plane’s tail, the rim of a wheel and an emergency chute, as well as clothing and personal belongings from passengers.
Flight SJ182 had 12 crew and 50 passengers on board, all Indonesians and including 10 children.
READ: More debris found as Indonesian authorities race against time to search for missing Sriwijaya Air plane
The probe into the crash – the latest in a string of disasters for Indonesia’s aviation sector – is likely to take months.
Aviation analysts said flight-tracking data showed the plane sharply deviated from its intended course before it went into a steep dive, with bad weather, pilot error and mechanical malfunction among the potential factors.
Stephen Wright, professor of aircraft systems at Finland’s Tampere University, said the aircraft’s relatively slow air speed was a red flag.
“Something quite dramatic has happened after takeoff,” he added.
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Sriwijaya Air, which operates flights to destinations in Indonesia and Southeast Asia, has said little about the 26-year-old plane, which was previously flown by US-based Continental Airlines and United Airlines.
The Indonesian carrier has not recorded a fatal crash since it started operations in 2003.
But the Southeast Asian nation’s fast-growing aviation sector has long been plagued by safety concerns, and its airlines were once banned from entering US and European airspace.
In October 2018, 189 people were killed when a Lion Air Boeing 737 MAX jet crashed near Jakarta.
That accident – and another in Ethiopia – saw Boeing hit with US$2.5 billion in fines over claims it defrauded regulators overseeing the 737 MAX model, which was grounded worldwide following the accidents.
The 737 model that went down Saturday was first produced decades ago and was not a MAX variant.
In 2014, an AirAsia plane headed from Surabaya to Singapore crashed with the loss of 162 lives.
A year later more than 140 people, including scores on the ground, were killed when a military plane crashed shortly after take-off in Medan on Sumatra island.