Major wreckage of AirAsia spotted

Priority is to recover more bodies from Java Sea amid fears that time is running out, writes Achmad Ibrahim.

Divers and an unmanned underwater vehicle have spotted the tail of the AirAsia plane that crashed into the Java Sea, the first confirmed sighting of any major wreckage after Flight 8501 went down with 162 people on board, an official said.

Powerful currents and murky water continue to hinder the operation, but searchers managed to get a photograph of the debris — about 9km from where the plane lost contact — after it was detected by an Indonesian survey ship, National Search and Rescue chief Henry Bambang Soelistyo told reporters.

One released image appeared to show an upside down ‘A’ painted on a piece of metal, while another grainy shot depicted some sort of mechanical parts.

The find is particularly important because the all-important cockpit voice and flight data recorders, or black boxes, are located in the aircraft’s tail. Smaller pieces of the plane, such as seats and an emergency door, had previously been collected from the surface, and six other several large objects have been detected by sonar on the seabed in the same area.

“We successfully discovered the part of the plane that became the main aim,” Soelistyo said. “I can ensure that this is part of the tail with the AirAsia mark on it.”

He stressed the top priority remains recovering more bodies along with the black boxes. So far, 40 corpses have been found, including an additional one announced yesterday, but time is running out.

At two weeks, most corpses will sink, said Anton Castilani, head of Indonesia’s disaster identification victim unit, and there are already signs of serious decomposition.

Officials are hopeful many of the more than 120 bodies still unaccounted for will be found entombed in the fuselage.

The Airbus A320 went down on December 28, halfway through a two-hour flight between Indonesia’s second-largest city of Surabaya and Singapore, killing everyone on board. It is not clear what caused the crash, but bad weather is believed to be a contributing factor.

Just before losing contact, the pilot told air traffic control he was approaching threatening clouds, but was denied permission to climb to a higher altitude because of heavy air traffic. No distress signal was issued.

Finding the black boxes will be key to the investigation. They provide essential information including the plane’s vertical and horizontal speeds along with engine temperature and final conversations between the captain and co-pilot.

The ping-emitting beacons still have about 20 days before their batteries go dead, but high surf had prevented the deployment of ships that drag “ping” locators.

Sonar-equipped ships involved in the massive international hunt have also identified what they believe to be the fuselage of the plane. Several other big chunks have been found though no visual confirmation has been received yet.

In addition to heavy rain and wind, the monsoon weather has turned the Java Sea into a slush bowl.

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