Death toll from Indonesian plane crash at 142 as recovery effort winds down

The death toll from a plane crash in Indonesia’s fourth-largest city, Medan, rose to more than 140 people as a massive recovery effort wound down Wednesday afternoon.

Officials said 122 people, including military officers and their family members, were on board the Hercules C-120 military transport plane when it crashed just after noon Tuesday. Sairi Saragih, a spokeswoman at Adam Malik Hospital, said 142 bodies had been recovered by early Wednesday, suggesting that the plane killed at least 20 people on the ground.

On Wednesday, Indonesian President Joko Widodo promised an investigation into the cause of the crash and a review of the country’s air force fleet. "On behalf of the government I would like to express condolences on the loss of our best sons and daughters," he said in a televised address. He also promised a “comprehensive overhaul of the management of military equipment.”

The plane crashed about two minutes after takeoff from the Soewondo air force base in Medan, a city of about 2 million on the island Sumatra, according to Indonesian Air Marshal Agus Supriatna. The pilot asked to return to the base because of an engine problem, then banked right and crashed, he said.

Witnesses told local media that the plane burst into flames as it fell, hitting a massage parlor and a small hotel. Television broadcasts showed its smoldering remains amid piles of rubble, surrounded by dense crowds of onlookers.

Sardiman Angkat, a worker at the massage parlor, said eight of his colleagues were killed but he was unhurt.

"I was at the back doing cleaning work when I heard an explosion -- I thought it was a gas explosion or something," he told the Jakarta-based broadcaster Metro TV. "When I ran to the front everything was on fire."

The 51-year-old plane took off from Jakarta at 6 a.m. on a routine flight, officials said, and stopped over in two Indonesian cities before landing in Medan. It was bound for Tanjung Pinang in the Riau Islands off Sumatra’s coast.

Hundreds of relatives have gathered at the hospital to identify the deceased, according to the Jakarta Post.

"God willing [the recovery effort] is finished," regional military commander Maj. Gen. Edy Rahmayadi said in a televised statement. "We hope there will be no more bodies found."

On Wednesday, officials and experts began to question the cause of the crash, shining a spotlight on the country’s patchy air safety record.

"We should not just buy weapons, but shift towards modernizing our weapons systems," Widodo said in the televised statement. "Our defense industry should be involved, starting from production, operation, maintenance. The main point is ... the procurement of weapons should ultimately move toward an independent defense industry."

Five other Indonesian Air Force plane crashes have caused fatalities over the past decade, according to the Aviation Safety Network; in 2009, another Hercules plane crashed into a village while carrying 112 people, resulting in 99 deaths.

In March, two planes from the country’s Jupiter Aerobatic Team, operated by the country’s air force, crashed during a practice run before an air show on Malaysia’s Langkawi Island. The pilots ejected, and only suffered minor injuries. In April, an F-16 fighter jet burst into flames on a runway in Jakarta. No one was seriously hurt.

Medan was the site of another aviation disaster on Sept. 5, 2005, when a Mandala Airlines Boeing 737 crashed into a residential area shortly after takeoff, killing more than 140 people. In December 2014, a passenger jet operated by AirAsia Indonesia, a subsidiary of the Malaysia-based budget carrier AirAsia, crashed into the Java Sea while carrying 162 people from Surabaya to Singapore, killing everyone on board.

The Indonesian military operates 28 Lockheed C-130 cargo aircraft similar to the one that crashed. The government has temporarily grounded the rest of its Hercules planes, pending an investigation.

"The latest Hercules C-130 crash is a massive tragedy.” said Evan Laksmana, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. “But questions linger: What sort of ‘routine mission’ carries over 100 passengers, including military officers' families, in a military transport aircraft?”

Laksmana said that the country’s Hercules C-130 fleet is aging, and that the military’s maintenance policies remain unclear. He added that while the Hercules C-130 can carry up to 19 tons, many consider 100 passengers to be too many for an aging aircraft.

Fuad Basya, Indonesia’s armed forces spokesman, dismissed the idea that the aging plane was not flightworthy, saying it had not reached the end of its service life. "Aircraft are not the same as human beings,” he said. “When parts are broken we replace them and it will be like new." A Hercules aircraft could remain in service until 38,000 hours of flight, he said.

Metro TV reported Wednesday that some passengers’ relatives claimed that their loved ones paid to get on the plane, raising widespread speculation that the crew allowed civilians to board the flight in return for cash – a common practice in Indonesia, a vast archipelago of more than 18,000 islands, many of them remote.

Only 50 people were on the flight’s manifest, the Associated Press cited North Sumatra police chief Eko Hadi Sutedjo as saying.

Fuad insisted that those on board were military personnel and their families."When soldiers move to a new place, their families join them,” he said.

Special correspondent Pathoni reported from Jakarta and Times staff writer Kaiman from Bangkok, Thailand.

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