Teams searching for AirAsia Flight 8501 have found more than 40 bodies along with debris floating in the Java Sea southwest of Borneo, and the airline has now confirmed in an official statement that the debris “is indeed from QZ8501,” the flight that lost contact with air-traffic control on the morning of the 28th.
At least three bodies had been recovered by Tuesday evening local time and a ship was being dispatched to ferry the remains to the nearest city. Searchers reported seeing a large shadow on the seabed, suggesting the crashed jet has been located.
Sunu Widyatmoko, chief executive officer of AirAsia Indonesia, said in a statement: “We are sorry to be here today under these tragic circumstances. We would like to extend our sincere sympathies to the family and friends of those on board QZ8501. Our sympathies also go out to the families of our dear colleagues.”
Tony Fernandes, the group chief executive officer of AirAsia, added: “I am absolutely devastated. This is a very difficult moment for all of us at AirAsia as we await further developments of the search and rescue operations but our first priority now is the well being of the family members of those onboard QZ8501.”
Indonesian military aircraft and some ships spotted several objects, including an airplane’s emergency exit door, an emergency slide, and square metal objects, as well as the bodies, floating in the sea, beginning around 11 a.m. local time, Bambang Soelistyo, Indonesia’s search-and-rescue chief, said at a press conference in Jakarta that was broadcast live. Other officials told reporters that searchers also spotted a life vest and baggage in the water. Within hours, the Indonesian navy said dozens of bodies were being seen.
Soelistyo said all teams involved in the search operation—aircraft and seaborne vessels—would now converge on the area south of Pangkalan Bun and that the priority is to pick up metal objects and objects suspected to be bodies and identify them. The Airbus A320-200, carrying 155 passengers and seven crew members, vanished Saturday en route from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore. Authorities said they dispatched at least one helicopter to pick up at least 10 pieces of debris to be checked and that all the items will be taken to the search and rescue coordination post on the island of Belitung. Some of the items Indonesian military aircraft saw were long yellow tubes. Other objects were white, red, and black. AirAsia’s jets are red and white, and many of the seats are black.
Soelistyo’s comments, delivered in Indonesian, were echoed by Indonesia’s civil aviation director-general, Djoko Murjatmodjo, who told AFP, “For the time being, it can be confirmed that it’s the AirAsia plane and the transport minister will depart soon” for the area.
The news hit like a thunderbolt in the crisis center in Surabaya where relatives have been gathering since air traffic control lost contact with the plane. It appeared Soelistyo’s televised bombshell was the first time any family members definitively learned their loved ones had perished. The BBC reported that the survivors learning of the news triggered so much “screaming and crying” that one woman collapsed and had to be carried from the large room. As with the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 nine months ago, relatives had been holding out hope that the plane somehow was intact somewhere; their family members safe. Soelistyo’s stark news appeared to have dashed such hopes.
Soelistyo’s press conference came after Indonesian officials told reporters they were sending teams to investigate reports of “billowing” smoke being seen in the area where the plane disappeared, just south of Belitung. The smoke was spotted by a Chinese team, though authorities cautioned that it might be unrelated to Flight 8501, wary that the reports could be among the red herrings that almost invariably develop in this type of case. Officials also had received reports of loud bangs—called in by fishermen—and an oil slick. Neither was found to be significant.
The news from Indonesia prompted AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes to take to Twitter to offer condolences to relatives of the presumably lost passengers and crew. “My heart is filled with sadness,” tweeted the tycoon, who has long prided himself on his hugely popular airline’s superior service and safety record.
Flight 8501, carrying 137 adult passengers, 17 children, one infant, two pilots, and five crew members, disappeared after it apparently encountered storm clouds. The pilot asked air-traffic control for permission to climb from 32,000 to 38,000 feet to avoid the bad weather. Indonesian authorities said controllers approved the request, but received no reply and, shortly after that, the aircraft dropped off the radar. The disappearance sparked a massive international search effort that includes personnel and/or equipment from countries ranging from the United States, Britain, China, France and Russia to Australia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, and Malaysia. The search has focused on waters around the islands of Bangka and Belitung in the Java Sea, across the water from the large province of Kalimantan.
On Monday, Soelistyo had jolted relatives as well as searchers by suggesting that the plane could be “at the bottom of the sea.”
Oceanographers say the Java Sea is relatively shallow, which should make it easier to spot wreckage in the water in the coming days. Strong currents and winds, however, mean any debris could be drifting up to 31 miles a day eastward, away from the impact zone.