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Indonesia plane crash death toll 141 as search effort ends

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Indonesian military personnel use heavy machines to remove the wheels of a military plane that crashed onto a residential area on Tuesday in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia, Wednesday, July 1, 2015. The C-130 Hercules crashed shortly after takeoff in the country's third largest city on June 30. (AP Photo/Dedy Zulkifli)

MEDAN, Indonesia >> Indonesia’s air force promised Wednesday to investigate whether the aging transport plane that crashed into a city neighborhood, killing 141 people, was violating rules by carrying non-military passengers who paid for their flights. A local military commander said the search for bodies has ended.

The dead included all 122 on the plane, including military personnel and family members, and people in a residential area of Medan city where the C-130 Hercules crashed shortly after takeoff on Tuesday, North Sumatra police Maj. A. Tarigan told TVOne station.

The final death toll may not be determined for some time. Body parts were also retrieved from the rubble and transported to a hospital in two body bags.

The cause of the accident is not yet known but the pilot was trying to return to the airport because of an engine problem. At Adam Malik Hospital where bodies were taken, regional military commander Edy Rahmayadai told reporters that the rescue operation involving hundreds of soldiers and police had finished.

The C-130 was carrying many more passengers than the military first reported. Initially, the air force said there were 12 crew members on the 51-year-old plane and did not mention passengers. It then repeatedly raised the number of people on board, indicating confusion about how many people had boarded and alighted during a journey covering several cities.

Relatives and friends of some victims said they had paid for their flights. Hitching rides on military planes to reach remote destinations is common in Indonesia, a sprawling archipelago that spans three time zones. The military has previously promised to crack down on the practice.

The plane had traveled from the capital, Jakarta, and landed at two locations before stopping over at Medan on Sumatra, one of Indonesia’s main islands. On the doomed leg of the journey, its final destination was the remote Natuna island chain.

Interviewed at Adam Malik Hospital, Indra Bakara said his cousin was one of the civilians on the flight and paid about 1 million rupiah ($75) to go to Natuna. As he spoke, the dead woman’s mother, Nacita Batubara, wept and shouted her daughter’s name, wailing that she had driven her to catch the plane.

"Lack of transportation to Natuna has forced us to go there by military flight, no choice," Bakara said. "But now we realize we cannot expect any compensation or insurance or even an apology from the military over this accident." He said he was unaware of regulations prohibiting most civilians on military flights.

Riski Ananda, a 20-year-old university student, said his friend Musyawir paid a small administrative fee to board the flight at Pekanbaru in Sumatra along with other university students heading to Natuna. Students in Pekanbaru often use military flights to visit families who may be military or civil servants on the islands.

Air force chief Air Marshal Agus Supriatna told reporters the C-130 was only authorized to carry military personnel and their families. He said he would investigate allegations of paying passengers.

A copy of the manifest seen by The Associated Press shows 32 passengers with no designation. The rest are described as either military or military family members. In some circumstances, civilians such as government officials or researchers can get authorization to fly on military planes, according to Supriatna.

Dozens of family members gathered at Adam Malik Hospital on Wednesday. Outside its mortuary, more than 100 wood coffins were arranged in rows and women cried and screamed the names of loved ones killed in the disaster.

A group of students from a Catholic high school in the city screamed hysterically as a body bag was opened, revealing the badly bruised corpse of classmate Esther Lina Josephine, 17, clasping her 14-year-old sister.

"She looks like she wanted to protect her younger sister," said the school’s principal, Tarcisia Hermas. "We’ve lost kind and smart students who had so many creative ideas."

Hermas said the sisters were traveling during school vacation to see their parents in Natuna, where the father of the teenagers is stationed with the army.

Adam Malik Hospital spokeswoman Sairi M. Saragih said more than 60 bodies have been identified.

Indonesia has a patchy civil aviation safety record and its cash-strapped air force has suffered a series of accidents. Between 2007 and 2009, the European Union barred Indonesian airlines from flying to Europe because of safety worries.

The country’s most recent civilian airline disaster was in December, when an AirAsia jet with 162 people on board crashed into the Java Sea en route from Surabaya to Singapore. There have been five fatal crashes involving air force planes since 2008, according to the Aviation Safety Network, which tracks aviation disasters.

President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo said has ordered a "fundamental overhaul" of military weaponry.

"We have to be involved from the beginning in design, production, operations, training, maintenance and elimination of aged weapons," he told reporters in Depok, West Java.

Indonesia’s military has a longstanding reputation for corruption and has never totally accepted its reduced status after the fall of dictator Suharto in 1998 forced soldiers out of politics. It is engaged in a recurrent turf war with police over internal security roles and illicit money-making opportunities. Low wages also foster corruption among officers and the rank and file.

At the crash site, a backhoe has been digging at the pile of smoldering concrete where the plane hit. The impact shattered a large building that local media said contained shops and homes, and set vehicles alight.

The crash of the aircraft occurred only two minutes after it took off from Soewondo air force base.

Witnesses said the plane was flying low and flames and smoke streamed from it before crashing. Supriatna, the air force chief, has said the pilot told the control tower that he needed to turn back because of engine trouble and the plane crashed while turning right to return to the airport.


Associated Press writers Stephen Wright and Ali Kotarumalos in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this story.

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