JAKARTA, Indonesia – The search for the crashed Lion Air plane has found aircraft debris and passenger belongings on the seafloor but the object thought to be the fuselage is still eluding it, an Indonesian official said Wednesday, as chilling video of passengers boarding the fatal flight emerged.
Search and Rescue Agency chief Muhammad Syaugi said the seafloor findings give the search team confidence they will find the body of the aircraft. The location of the airplane’s “black box” flight data recorder has been identified, he said, but strong currents prevented it from being recovered.
“We saw belongings such as life jackets, pants, clothes scattered on the seabed,” Syaugi said. “We believe the fuselage will be around there, we hope that our target can be found.”
The 2-month-old Boeing 737 MAX 8 jet plunged into the Java Sea early Monday just minutes after taking off from Jakarta, killing all 189 people on board.
The disaster has reignited concerns about safety in Indonesia’s fast-growing aviation industry, which was recently removed from European Union and U.S. blacklists, and also raised doubts about the safety of Boeing’s new generation 737 MAX 8 plane.
Syaugi said one of the ships with high-tech equipment being used in the search dispatched a remote-operated vehicle that recorded parts of the aircraft on the seafloor but not the 22-meter (72-foot) -long object detected at a depth of 32 metres (105 feet) that is believed to be the fuselage. He said the area is about 400 metres (1,300 feet) from the co-ordinates where the airplane lost contact.
Three other objects in separate locations were reached by divers but turned out to be two sunken boats and a fish trap. A remote-operated vehicle was sent to the black box location “but the currents on the seabed were very strong, the ROV was carried away,” Syaugi said.
Searchers have sent 57 body bags containing human remains to police identification experts who on Wednesday said they’d identified their first victim, a 24-year-old woman, from a ring and a right hand.
Anguished family members have been providing samples for DNA tests and police say results are expected within 4-8 days.
Musyafak, the head of Said Sukanto Police Hospital, said nearly 150 samples for DNA testing have been collected but more are still needed, especially from parents and children of victims.
Boeing Co. experts were expected to arrive in Indonesia on Wednesday and Lion Air has said an “intense” internal investigation is underway in addition to the probe by safety regulators.
Data from flight-tracking sites show the plane had erratic speed and altitude in the early minutes of a flight on Sunday and on its fatal flight Monday. Safety experts caution, however, that the data must be checked for accuracy against the plane’s black boxes.
Several passengers on the Sunday flight from Bali to Jakarta have recounted problems that included a long-delayed takeoff for an engine check and terrifying descents in the first 10 minutes in the air.
Two interviewed on Indonesian TV recalled details such as a strange engine sound, a smell of burnt cables, and panicked passengers crying out for God to save them as the plane rapidly lost altitude. Later in the flight, a man who was either the captain or first officer walked through the plane and returned to the cockpit with what looked like a large manual.
Lion Air has said maintenance was carried out on the aircraft after the Sunday flight and a problem, which it didn’t specify, was fixed.
Indonesian TV broadcast a smartphone video of passengers boarding Flight 610, its mundane details transformed into unsettling moments by knowledge of the tragedy that would transpire.
It showed passengers’ boarding passes being checked and people walking along a concourse and then down stairs with bright red and white Lion Air jets visible on the tarmac.
At one point, the passenger who shot the video, Paul Ferdinand Ayorbaba, zoomed in on the flight number on his boarding pass. A part of the video shows passengers walking up the boarding stairs to a Lion jet.
“My husband sent that video to me via WhatsApp. It was his last contact with me, his last message to me,” said Inchy Ayorbaba, interviewed at the Jakarta police hospital where she had taken their three children for DNA tests.
The messaging app’s timestamp showed the video was sent about 35 minutes before the plane took off, said Ayorbaba, who first saw the message at 6:30 a.m., some 10 minutes after the plane departed, and then went back to sleep.
Lion Air’s technical director was removed from duty Wednesday at the order of the Transport Ministry. It also has ordered all Boeing 737 MAX 8 planes operated by Lion Air and national carrier Garuda to be inspected. Lion has ordered 50 of the jets, worth an estimated $6.2 billion, and currently operates nine.
Daniel Putut, a Lion Air managing director, said Tuesday evening the airline has many questions for Boeing.
“Of course there are lots of things we will ask them, we all have question marks here, ‘Why? What’s the matter with this new plane,'” Putut said.
The crash is the worst airline disaster in Indonesia since 1997, when 234 people died in the crash of a Garuda flight near Medan. In December 2014, an AirAsia flight from Surabaya to Singapore plunged into the sea, killing all 162 on board.
Indonesian airlines were barred in 2007 from flying to Europe because of safety concerns, though several were allowed to resume services in the following decade. The ban was completely lifted in June. The U.S. lifted a decadelong ban in 2016.
Lion Air, a discount carrier, is one of Indonesia’s youngest and biggest airlines, flying to dozens of domestic and international destinations. It has been expanding aggressively in Southeast Asia, a fast-growing region of more than 600 million people.
Associated Press journalist Andi Jatmiko contributed to this report.