A Lion Air passenger plane that took off Monday from Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, crashed into the sea shortly after takeoff with 189 people on board in clear skies, launching a grim mission to find unlikely survivors in the country’s worst air disaster in recent years.
Rescuers soon began pulling debris out of the depths of the sea, including parts of the aircraft’s fuselage, ID cards and bags belonging to the passengers on board. Speaking to an Indonesian television network, a police officer said at least one body had been recovered. People at an offshore refining facility nearby also found remains of the aircraft, including plane seats, in the water. Officials say they have received no confirmation that anyone has survived.
“We are waiting for a miracle of God,” said Nugroho Budi Wiryanto, deputy operations chief at the national search-and-rescue agency. More than 300 rescuers have been deployed from the agency, he said, and are still searching for the main body of the plane.
Lion Air Flight JT 610 lost contact with air traffic officials and fell from over 3,000 feet about 13 minutes after takeoff, plunging into the sea below, officials said, adding that people on a nearby tugboat watched the plane descend.
The air traffic websites FlightAware and Flightradar24 showed the plane climbing erratically, barely reaching above 5,000 feet, before quickly dropping and disappearing from radar.
In a news conference, Lion Air Group’s CEO Edward Sirait said the plane, a new model from Boeing, had a technical issue on a previous flight that was resolved “according to procedure.” He did not give details.
“Let the authorities investigate what happened to it,” he added, refusing to speculate on the cause. “But I made sure that this plane was released to fly by our engineers.”
Among those on board were two pilots, six flight attendants and two babies, as well as 20 employees from Indonesia’s Finance Ministry. The pilot, Capt. Bhavye Suneja, had more than 6,000 flight hours, and his co-pilot had more than 5,000 hours. Suneja was originally from New Delhi, according to Indian media reports.
By Monday afternoon, distraught family members had begun streaming into a crisis center set up in Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport. Another was established at the plane’s never-reached destination at the Depati Amir Airport in Pangkal Pinang, a tin-mining region.
Many had heard the news of the crash and rushed to the airport, fearing the worst.
Among them were Fitri Sagala, 47, whose brother-in-law, Mangatur Sihombing, boarded flight JT 610 that morning. She was at the crisis center with her sister, Mangatur’s wife.
“I’m at a loss,” she said, explaining she herself had already been widowed and her brother-in-law was the main provider. “I lost my husband, so he was caring for me and my children.”
Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman for Indonesia’s national disaster agency, shared a video on Twitter of rescuers on tugboats looking for debris off the coast of Karawang, an area in West Java close to Jakarta. He also shared photos of mangled cellphones and a torn bag that rescuers recovered. Rescuers have started diving to find debris and remains in the sea, which has a depth of about 114 feet.
Speaking at a news briefing in Bali, where he was attending a conference on oceans, Indonesian president Joko Widodo urged families to remain calm while officials continue to search for life among the debris.
“We are doing our best to find and save victims, and I continue to pray and hope that the victims can be found soon,” Widodo, better known as Jokowi, said. He called for the country’s prayers and support.
The aircraft, a Boeing 737 Max 8, was purchased this year by Lion Air, Southeast Asia’s second-largest low-cost airline. The plane is one of Boeing’s newest, and had flown several hundred hours since Lion Air started operating it on Aug. 15. It departed at 6:21 a.m. local time and was scheduled to arrive about 7:20 a.m. at Pangkal Pinang, the largest city on the nearby Indonesian island of Bangka.
Boeing said it had received confirmation that the Indonesian Ministry of Transportation had located the wreckage of the flight.
“The Boeing Company is deeply saddened by the loss of Flight JT 610. We express our concern for those on board, and extend heartfelt sympathies to their families and loved ones,” a company statement read. “Boeing stands ready to provide technical assistance to the accident investigation.”
Indonesian officials and experts say the exact cause of the crash will not be clear until flight data, particularly from the plane’s black box, is retrieved. An estimated location of the black box has been identified, and divers are searching for it. A statement from Indonesia’s Transport Ministry said the plane had requested to return to base before it lost contact. Skies were clear and there were no abnormalities in the weather.
Aircraft makers and carriers have long prized Indonesia as one of the region’s fastest growing aviation market, with a rising middle-class. Air travel is a necessity to dart across Indonesia’s large archipelago of islands. Domestic passenger traffic has tripled over the past 12 years to 97 million in 2017.
But the country has long received mixed reviews on airline safety, and all its airlines were only removed from the European Union’s air safety list and deemed safe to travel on this June. Lion Air was allowed to fly in EU airspace in 2016.
Lion Air, established in 1999, is Indonesia’s largest budget airline. It has been involved in a number of incidents in recent years, but none with fatalities. One of its jets collided with a plane from another carrier, Wings Air, on the island of Sumatra last year but no one was injured. In 2013, a Lion Air flight crashed into the sea after landing on the resort island of Bali. Several were injured, but no one was killed.
In 2004, a Lion Air plane skidded off the runway in heavy rains when it landed in the city of Solo, killing 31.
If all the passengers and crew on the aircraft have died, it would be the country’s second-worst disaster since 1997, when a Garuda Airlines plane crashed close to the city of Medan, killing all 234 people on board.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Stanley Widianto, Shibani Mahtani, Ainur Rohmah ·