Indonesian search and rescue teams begin recovering bodies as officials say scattered debris is from missing flight QZ8501
Floating debris in an aerial view taken from an Indonesian search and rescue aircraft over the Java Sea. Photograph: Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty Images
Teams searching for AirAsia flight QZ8501 have begun recovering dozens of bodies from the Java Sea, as Indonesian officials confirmed that scattered debris found nearby came from the plane.
A major search and rescue effort involving at least 30 ships and 15 aircraft from nine countries has been looking for the aircraft since it vanished early on Sunday morning while carrying 162 people from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore. The findings mark a major breakthrough on the operation’s third day.
The flight’s carrier, AirAsia Indonesia, an affiliate of the Malaysian budget carrier AirAsia, confirmed in a statement posted on Facebook that the debris belonged to the missing flight.
“I am absolutely devastated,” AirAsia’s chief executive, Tony Fernandes, said, according to the statement. “This is a very difficult moment for all of us at AirAsia as we await further developments of the search and rescue operations but our first priority now is the wellbeing of the family members of those on board QZ8501.”
The Indonesian television station TvOne reportedly broadcast images of a floating body, then apologised for showing the pictures after relatives of passengers in Surabaya saw the images on television and burst into tears.
AFP reported that at least two relatives collapsed and had to be carried out on stretchers. “My heart will be totally crushed if it’s true. I will lose a son,” 60-year-old Dwijanto told the news agency.
The Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, arrived in Surabaya after nightfall to meet the families.
Indonesian president Joko Widodo talks to the media in Surabaya after meeting relatives of the missing AirAsia plane passengers. Photograph: Made Nagi/EPA
Indonesian officials said search and rescue teams spotted the shadow of a plane beneath the water. “God blessed us today,” Bambang Soelistyo, the head of Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency, told reporters, according to AFP. “At 12:50 the air force Hercules found an object described as a shadow at the bottom of the sea in the form of a plane.”
As dusk fell, Indonesian navy spokesperson Manahan Simorangkir said searchers had begun to recover bodies. “Based on the navy radio, it has been reported that the warship Bung Tomo has retrieved 40 bodies and the number is growing,” he said. “They are very busy now.” No bodies have been identified.
Earlier, Tri Wibowo, the co-pilot of one of the planes involved in the search, said he saw “dozens of floating bodies as well as bags and aircraft debris”, according to the Jakarta Post. SB Supriyadi, the director of national search and rescue, told reporters the corpses were not wearing life jackets.
Indonesian air force official Agus Dwi Putranto told a press conference on Tuesday afternoon that search vessels had found objects located approximately 10km from the location where the plane was last captured on radar. “We spotted about 10 big objects and many more small white-coloured objects which we could not photograph,” he said.
“It is not really clear … it could be the wall of the plane or the door of the plane,” Putranto said. “Let’s pray that those objects are what we are really trying to find.” As the day wore on, searchers began to identify life jackets and luggage among the debris.
On Tuesday, Indonesian officials announced they would be expanding the search area. France, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, the US, New Zealand, South Korea and China are assisting in the operation.
The US navy has deployed the USS Sampson, and the Australian foreign minister, Julie Bishop, said Australia was deploying two RAAF P3 Orion planes equipped with specialist search equipment.
Sunu Widyatmoko, chief executive officer of AirAsia Indonesia, said: “We are sorry to be here today under these tragic circumstances. We would like to extend our sincere sympathies to the family and friends of those on board QZ8501. Our sympathies also go out to the families of our dear colleagues.”