AirAsia search resumes with focus on plane's tail section

Search teams focus on AirAsia plane's tail section, which is believed to hold the flight recorders

Indonesian navy divers focused Monday on locating the tail of the crashed AirAsia jet, which was believed to hold the “black box” flight recorders that could help determine what caused the plane to plunge into the Java Sea.

A day earlier, search officials halted efforts to reach the submerged body of the plane after divers encountered strong winds and heavy waves that reduced visibility to “zero,” Bambang Soelistyo, head of Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency, told reporters.

More than a week after the airliner went down en route from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore, recovery crews have located several large objects on the sea floor that are believed to be the fuselage of the Airbus A320-200. The flight ran into a thunderstorm, but the exact cause of the crash won’t be known until the flight recorders can be retrieved from the wreckage.

Officials tried Sunday to send 21 Indonesian navy divers equipped with cameras and sonar beacons into the water with the aim of reaching the largest object, which geological survey vessels had measured at about 60 feet long. They also attempted to deploy a remotely operated underwater vehicle to pinpoint the wreckage in roughly 100-foot-deep waters.

But stormy conditions wreaked havoc with the effort, as they have for the last eight days, officials said.

"Yesterday we were only five minutes under the sea when the weather changed drastically," said Capt. Edi Tirtayasa, the dive team commander, on Monday.

"We stopped the activity because it was dangerous," he said. "Trust us -- they are doing the best they can and they are not giving up."

Four more bodies were found Sunday, bringing the confirmed death toll to 34, Bambang said. A total of 162 mostly Indonesian passengers and crew were aboard, and all are presumed dead, many believed still to be strapped into their seats in the body of the plane on the sea floor.

Indonesian Brig. Gen. Arthur Tampi, the head of the national police medical department, said as days passed it was becoming more difficult to identify victims without DNA samples from families.

“The bodies are in a state of advanced decomposition,” Tampi said. “It’s impossible to identify them visually.”

Authorities in Surabaya have identified nine of the bodies, and experts from South Korea and Australia were due to arrive Monday to help identify the others, according to a statement from AirAsia.

Teams also located a fifth large object, about 32 feet long, lying close to the others, suggesting that the body of the aircraft could be relatively intact under water and did not break up during the thunderstorm.

More stray items from the airliner were recovered by crews, AirAsia said, including the emergency exit window, luggage and passenger seats. Part of the aircraft’s emergency stairs also has been found, leading some experts to speculate that the pilot could have attempted a water landing.

Two U.S. naval ships and two helicopters were participating in an effort involving 27 vessels and 20 aircraft from at least seven countries, officials said.

Special correspondent Pathoni reported from Jakarta and Times staff writer Bengali from Mumbai, India.

For more news on the AirAsia crash, follow @SBengali on Twitter

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


8:10 p.m.: This post has been updated with searchers now focusing on the tail section.

9:30 a.m.: This post has been updated nine bodies identified, experts en route, more material recovered.

6:08 a.m.: This post has been updated with comments from an Indonesian naval official. 

The original version of this post was published at 3:39 a.m.