SURABAYA, Indonesia >> More ships arrived Friday with sensitive equipment to search for the fuselage of AirAsia Flight 8501 and the more than 150 people still missing since it crashed five days ago.
Rear Marshal Henry Bambang Soelistyo, head of Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency, said the search would be stepped up as long as the weather allowed.
“We will focus on underwater detection,” said Soelistyo, adding ships from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the U.S. had been on the scene from before dawn Friday to try to pinpoint the wreckage and the all-important black boxes– the flight data and cockpit voice recorders.
The Airbus A320 crashed into the Java Sea on Sunday with 162 people on board. Nine bodies have been recovered so far.
Nine planes, many with metal detectors, were also scouring a 13,500 square kilometer (8,380 square mile) area off Pangkalan Bun, the closest town on Borneo island to the search area. Two Japanese ships with three helicopters are on their way to the area, Soelistyo said.
But he said bad weather, which has hindered the search the last several days, was a worry, with forecasts of rain, strong winds and high waves up to 4 meters (13 feet) until Sunday. The strong sea currents have kept debris moving.
He estimated that the fuselage was at a depth of 25 to 30 meters (about 80 to 100 feet), and vowed to recover the bodies of “our brothers and sisters … whatever the conditions we face.”
So far, one victim of the crash has been identified and was returned to her family Thursday, one of many painful reunions to come.
Hayati Lutfiah Hamid’s identity was confirmed by fingerprints and other means, said Col. Budiyono of East Java’s Disaster Victim Identification Unit.
Her body, in a dark casket topped with flowers, was handed over to family members during a brief ceremony at a police hospital in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city where the plane took off. A relative cried as she placed both hands against the polished wood.
The coffin was then taken to a village and lowered into a muddy grave, following Muslim obligations requiring bodies to be buried quickly. An imam said a simple prayer as about 150 people gathered in the drizzling rain, and red flowers were sprinkled over the mound of wet dirt topped by a small white tombstone.
The longer the search takes, the more corpses will decompose and debris scatter.
Aviation expert Geoffrey Thomas in Australia said there’s a good chance the plane hit the water largely intact, and that many passengers remain inside it.
He added that bodies recovered so far would have come out with a breach in the fuselage. “But most passengers still should have had their seat belts on, particularly as the plane was going into weather. The captain would have still had the seat belt sign on.”
It is unclear what brought the plane down about halfway into its two-hour flight to Singapore. The jet’s last communication indicated the pilots were worried about bad weather. They sought permission to climb above threatening clouds but were denied because of heavy air traffic. Four minutes later, the airliner disappeared from the radar without issuing a distress signal.
The black boxes hold data that will help investigators determine the cause of the crash but have yet to be recovered. Items found so far include a life jacket, an emergency exit door, an inflatable slide, children’s shoes, a blue suitcase and backpacks filled with food.
Relatives have given blood for DNA tests and submitted photos of their loved ones, along with identifying information such as tattoos or birthmarks that could help make the process easier.
The long wait, with its starts and stops, has been frustrating for Sugiarti. Her 40-year-old sister, Susiyah, was a nanny traveling to Singapore for a vacation with her employers and their 2-year-old daughter.
“I hope that they can find her body soon. I feel sorry for my sister because it has already been five days,” she told reporters at a crisis center set up at a Surabaya police station. “I am trying very hard to be patient.”
Nearly all the passengers were Indonesian, and many were Christians of Chinese descent. The country is predominantly Muslim, but sizeable pockets of people of other faiths are found throughout the sprawling archipelago.