Recovery teams early Wednesday pulled bodies of people aboard Indonesia AirAsia Flight 8501 — including a woman in a flight attendant's uniform — from the rough, shallow waters of the Java Sea as the three-day mystery over the plane's whereabouts reached a heartbreaking resolution for the families of the 162 passengers and crew members aboard.
The discovery of a metal cylinder, a near-intact blue suitcase and other debris floating about six miles from the plane's last known location confirmed that the Airbus A320-200 jet crashed into the sea during a thunderstorm and moved the multi-nation search operation into an urgent recovery effort.
Indonesian officials said bodies would be taken ashore to a town on Borneo island, where more than 162 coffins had been prepared, before being brought to relatives in the Indonesian city of Surabaya, where the flight originated on Sunday morning before vanishing from radar during a two-hour flight bound for Singapore.
Family members who had huddled and prayed since Sunday at Surabaya's international airport broke down and wept as television images showed a rescuer being lowered into the water to retrieve a swollen body splayed at the surface, a shirt obscuring his face. The prospect of finding survivors was extremely remote more than 72 hours after the plane went down, although officials did not rule it out.
“My son's soul is in God's hands, whatever the state of his body is,” Sumarningsih, the mother of young male flight attendant Wismoyo Ari Prambudi, told Indonesia's Metro TV. Many Indonesians go by one name.
“He knew that his job had its risks,” she said. “He kept telling me not to worry because our lives are in God's hands. He always told me that when he was in the air he felt closer to God. He was prepared to die.”
By Wednesday morning, Indonesia's National Search and Rescue Agency said it had recovered six bodies but that rains and swelling waves were hindering the recovery effort and making it difficult to dispatch divers into a search zone encompassing more than 8,000 square miles off the Borneo coast.
“We will transport the bodies to Surabaya as soon as possible,” said Bambang Soelistyo, the head of the agency.
The crash capped a devastating year for aviation in Southeast Asia, particularly Malaysia, whose flagship carrier, Malaysia Airlines, saw one plane disappear over the Indian Ocean with 239 people aboard and a second one shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 passengers and crew members. AirAsia, a low-cost airline that until now had never experienced a fatal accident, is also based in Malaysia.
Nearly all 155 passengers and seven crew members aboard Flight 8501 were Indonesians, many of whom travel to Singapore during the holidays. Seventeen children and one infant were among the passengers, who included three South Koreans and one person each from Singapore, Malaysia and Britain, airline officials said.
“I am absolutely devastated,” Tony Fernandes, AirAsia's chief executive, said in a statement.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo said that ships and aircraft on Wednesday would work to find and retrieve the remaining bodies as quickly as possible.
“I feel the loss and we all pray that all the families be given strength in this trying time,” he told reporters in Surabaya.
Authorities asked family members to furnish photographs and DNA samples of passengers to aid in the identification process. AirAsia said it would bring counselors and religious and spiritual personnel to a crisis center at Surabaya airport to help the grieving families. Officials at Singapore's Changi Airport said they would work with AirAsia to help passengers' next of kin travel to the Indonesian city.
One factor in recovery teams' favor is that the Java Sea is at most 160 feet deep — about 100 times shallower than the isolated patch of the Indian Ocean where searchers are still looking for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
Surveillance planes flying over the search area Tuesday noticed a large object below the surface “in the shape of an aircraft,” Bambang said. That raised hopes of quickly finding the plane's flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorders, which were expected to offer clues into what went wrong about midway through the flight.
The pilot requested an altitude change to avoid storm clouds, but then the plane dropped off the radar. Though most experts have focused on the bad weather, investigators say other potential factors, including mechanical failure and sabotage, have not been ruled out.
Some of the first clues could come from the condition of the fuselage under water, experts said.
If it is found somewhat intact, that would be consistent with the plane going into an aerodynamic stall — in which the wings no longer provide lift — as the captain tried to maneuver around the thunderstorm. That is similar to what happened with Air France Flight 447, which encountered icing conditions and stalled before crashing into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009, killing all 228 passengers and crew members.
“You can't rule in or rule out anything, but if the fuselage they have seen under water is in a large piece, there's a likelihood the aircraft came down in one piece and there was not an in-flight breakup that might have occurred due to the forces of the thunderstorm,” said Jim Hall, a former chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.
The Sampson, a San Diego-based U.S. Navy destroyer, joined the search Tuesday at Indonesia's request, the Pentagon said. The destroyer is equipped with MH-60R search-and-rescue helicopters that flew over the area and discovered airplane debris late Tuesday, officials said.
A second U.S. vessel, the Fort Worth, a littoral combat ship, was in port in Singapore and “prepared to aid in search efforts if her assistance is requested,” the Pentagon said.
Ships and aircraft from five other nations — Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and South Korea — have searched across tens of thousands of square miles of sea and land since Sunday. The airplane debris was found Tuesday afternoon in the Karimata Strait between Sumatra and Borneo.
Times staff writer Bengali reported from Mumbai, India, and special correspondent Pathoni from Jakarta.