PANGKALAN BUN (AP/AFP) – Family members of those aboard AirAsia Flight 8501 collapsed in agony Tuesday as images of debris and a bloated body flashed across Indonesian television screens, proof that the plane crashed into the sea two days earlier with 162 people on board.
Meanwhile, there were jitters as an AirAsia flight bound for northeast Thailand turned back to the capital Bangkok shortly after takeoff Tuesday when pilots detected an “irregularity” in the storage compartment, airline officials said.
Later on Tuesday, another AirAsia jet – this time in the Philippines – skidded off the runway on arrival at a popular resort island, causing no injuries but shutting the small airport, the airline and police confirmed.
AirAsia Flight 8501 vanished Sunday halfway through a two-hour flight between Surabaya, Indonesia and Singapore after encountering storm clouds, sparking an international hunt with dozens of planes, ships and helicopters.
On the third day of searching, the first signs of the jet were found in shallow, aqua waters only about 16 kilometres from the plane’s last known coordinates: A life jacket, an emergency exit door.
Parts of the jetliner’s interior, including an oxygen tank, were brought to the nearest town, Pangkalan Bun. Another find included a bright blue plastic suitcase, completely unscratched.
First Adm Sigit Setiayanta, Naval Aviation Centre commander at Surabaya Air Force base, told reporters six corpses were spotted about 160 kilometres from Borneo island.
Rescue workers were lowered on ropes from a hovering helicopter to retrieve bodies.
Efforts were hindered by two-metre-high waves and strong winds, National Search and Rescue Director SB Supriyadi said, but several victims were later picked up by a navy ship.
Supriyadi had been on the aircraft and saw what appeared to be more wreckage under the water, which was clear and a relatively shallow 20 to 30 metres.
Television coverage of the discovery sent a spasm of pain through the room at the Surabaya airport where relatives were waiting for news, especially as it showed a half-naked man floating in the water, a shirt partially covering his head.
Many screamed and wailed uncontrollably, breaking down into tears while they squeezed each other. One middle-aged man collapsed and had to be carried out on a stretcher.
Nearly all the passengers and crew were Indonesians, who are frequent visitors to Singapore, particularly on holidays.
Before flying to Surabaya to pay his respects to the families, AirAsia group CEO Tony Fernandes tweeted, “My heart is filled with sadness for all the families involved in QZ 8501. On behalf of AirAsia my condolences to all. Words cannot express how sorry I am.
“I have apologised profusely for what they are going through,” he said of his contact with relatives. “I am the leader of this company, and I have to take responsibility. That is why I’m here. I’m not running away from my obligations.”