PANGKALAN BUN/SURABAYA, Indonesia (Reuters) - The first two bodies from the AirAsia plane that crashed off the coast of Borneo arrived on Wednesday in the Indonesian city of Surabaya, where relatives have gathered to await news of their loved ones.
Rescuers believe they have found the plane on the sea floor off Borneo, after sonar detected a large, dark object beneath waters near where debris and bodies were found on the surface.
Ships and planes had been scouring the Java Sea for Flight QZ8501 since Sunday, when it lost contact during bad weather about 40 minutes into its flight from Surabaya to Singapore.
Seven bodies have been recovered from the sea, some fully clothed, which could indicate the Airbus A320-200 was intact when it hit the water. That would support a theory that it suffered an aerodynamic stall.
Tatang Zaenudin, an official with Indonesia’s search and rescue agency, said earlier that one of the bodies had been found wearing a life jacket.
But he later said no victim had been recovered with a life jacket on.
“We found a body at 8.20 a.m. and a life jacket at 10.32 a.m. so there was a time difference. This is the latest information we have,” he told Reuters.
Two bodies, in coffins bedecked with flowers and marked 001 and 002, arrived by an air force plane in Surabaya.
Most of the 162 people on board were Indonesians. No survivors have been found.
HUNT FOR “BLACK BOX”
Hernanto, of the search and rescue agency in Surabaya, said rescuers believed they had found the plane on the sea bed with a sonar scan in water 30-50 meters (100-165 feet) deep.
The black box flight data and cockpit voice recorder have yet to be found.
Authorities in Surabaya were making preparations to receive and identify bodies, including arranging 130 ambulances to take victims to a police hospital and collecting DNA from relatives.
“We are praying it is the plane so the evacuation can be done quickly,” Hernanto said.
Strong wind and waves hampered the search and with visibility at less than a kilometer (half a mile), the air operation was called off in the afternoon.
“The weather today was really challenging in the field, with waves up to 5 meters high, wind reaching 40 km per hour (and) heavy rain, especially in the search area,” Fransiskus Bambang Soelistyo, the head of the search and rescue agency, told reporters in Surabaya.
He added that the plane’s whereabouts had not yet been confirmed and so the search for it would continue.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo said his priority was retrieving the bodies.
Relatives, many of whom collapsed in grief when they saw the first grim television pictures confirming their fears on Tuesday, held prayers at a crisis center at Surabaya airport.
“UNBELIEVABLY” STEEP CLIMB
The plane was traveling at 32,000 feet (9,753 meters) and had asked to fly at 38,000 feet to avoid bad weather. When air traffic controllers granted permission for a rise to 34,000 feet a few minutes later, they received no response.
The pilots did not issue a distress signal.
A source close to the probe into what happened said radar data appeared to show that the aircraft made an “unbelievably” steep climb before it crashed, possibly pushing it beyond the Airbus A320’s limits.
“So far, the numbers taken by the radar are unbelievably high. This rate of climb is very high, too high. It appears to be beyond the performance envelope of the aircraft,” he said.
The source, who declined to be named, added that more information was needed to come to a firm conclusion.
Online discussion among pilots has centered on unconfirmed secondary radar data from Malaysia that suggested the aircraft was climbing at a speed of 353 knots, about 100 knots too slow, and that it might have stalled.
The Indonesian captain, a former air force fighter pilot, had 6,100 flying hours under his belt and the plane last underwent maintenance in mid-November, said the airline, which is 49 percent owned by Malaysia-based budget carrier AirAsia.
Three airline disasters involving Malaysian-affiliated carriers in less than a year have dented confidence in the country’s aviation industry and spooked travelers.
Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 went missing in March on a trip from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew and has not been found. On July 17, the same airline’s Flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board.
On board Flight QZ8501 were 155 Indonesians, three South Koreans, and one person each from Singapore, Malaysia and Britain. The co-pilot was French.
The AirAsia group, including affiliates in Thailand, the Philippines and India, had not suffered a crash since its Malaysian budget operations began in 2002.
Additional reporting by Gayatri Suroyo, Kanupriya Kapoor, Michael Taylor and Charlotte Greenfield in JAKARTA/SURABAYA, Jane Wardell in SYDNEY and Anshuman Daga in SINGAPORE; Writing by Mark Bendeich and Robert Birsel; Editing by Nick Macfie/Mike Collett-White/Susan Fenton