Divers to plunge into Java Sea as part of AirAsia recovery effort

Recovery teams expand search for AirAsia crash victims and wreckage

Divers backed by undersea detection systems prepared to plunge into the murky Java Sea on Friday morning in a fresh bid to locate the wreckage of Indonesia AirAsia Flight 8501, believed to be submerged 150 feet below the surface.

With inclement conditions slowing the search for the Airbus A320-200, officials said it could be several more days before recovery crews get to the wreckage and attempt to locate the “black box” flight recorders that investigators say will help explain what caused the plane to crash Dec. 28 during a thunderstorm.

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FOR THE RECORD

An earlier version of this post incorrectly spelled the name of passenger Hayati Lutfiah Hamid as Lutfia and Luthfi.

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A day after waves more than 10 feet high kept most divers out of the water, search officials said they were prioritizing finding the plane's fuselage and flight recorders.

"We hope today will yield more significant results," search chief Bambang Soelistyo told reporters Friday.

Aerial searches and sonar images have suggested the plane is lying upside down on the relatively shallow sea floor. By Friday morning, 10 bodies out of 162 passengers and crew members had been recovered and brought ashore. Experts believe that many of the others could still be strapped in their seats in the jet.

“I am hoping that the latest information is correct and aircraft has been found,” AirAsia Chief Executive Tony Fernandes said on Twitter. “Please all hope together. This is so important.”

Officials said that churning waves and noise levels below the water’s surface were making it harder for teams conducting an acoustic search to isolate pings from the recorders.

“In deep water black boxes are easier to detect, but in shallow water the noise level is higher,” said Toos Sanitioso, an investigator from Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee. “It will take some time to find them.”

The head of the committee, Tatang Kurniadi, said teams were “racing against time” because the flight recorders emit signals for only 30 days, after which it becomes more difficult to locate them.

Crews were expected to step up efforts Friday to pinpoint the fuselage. A San Diego-based U.S. Navy destroyer, the Sampson, was approaching the search area, and along with Indonesian and Singaporean ships would begin conducting undersea search operations overnight, officials said.

More than two full days since debris was discovered south of Borneo island, some luggage, part of the aircraft’s emergency stairs, a metal tank and stray chunks of fuselage were among the few items that teams had pulled from the water in a massive search operation involving six nations.

Amid signs that debris had scattered upon impact with the Java Sea, officials widened the search area to nearly 18,000 square miles, double the area a day earlier.

Nineteen ships from the United States, Indonesia and Singapore were involved in the search, along with four helicopters and five fixed-wing planes, officials said.

Search officials have not ruled out survivors, but after more than four days at sea, the mostly Indonesian passengers and crew members were all presumed dead.

An Indonesian C-130 cargo plane took four bodies retrieved from the water since Tuesday to the Indonesian city of Surabaya, the origin point of the Singapore-bound flight, where families have gathered to identify bodies.

A post-mortem examination identified one of the victims as passenger Hayati Lutfiah Hamid, officials said. Her family collected her remains at a hospital in Surabaya.

“We extend our profound condolences to the family and friends of late Hayati Lutfiah Hamid,” Indonesia AirAsia Chief Executive Sunu Widyatmoko said in a statement. “AirAsia will support everything that the family may need during these difficult times.”

Indonesian media have identified two of the other victims as Khairunnisa Haidar, 22, a flight attendant, and Kevin Alexander Soetjipto, a university student, according to Indonesian media reports.

Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, posted a Twitter statement confirming that Soetjipto was a student there, adding that he would have turned 21 Thursday.

“On this day that would have been Kevin's 21st birthday, we express our deepest condolences to his family and friends,” the university said.

Fernandes wrote that reports of a crew member being identified were “heartbreaking” and “soul-destroying.”

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

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

7:47 p.m.: This story has been updated throughout, including information about search efforts planned Friday morning.

3:46: p.m.: This story has been updated with additional details.

8:50 a.m.: This story has been updated with additional details.

6:50 a.m.: This story has been updated with details from an evening news conference by search officials.

12:05 a.m., Jan. 1: This story has been updated with information regarding dive teams being prevented from locating the fuselage, four bodies brought to Surabaya and reaction to identification of bodies.

This story was original published at 8:50 p.m., Dec. 31.

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