A member of the National Transportation Safety Committee (KNKT) inspects wreckage from Sriwijaya Air flight SJ182 at Tanjung Priok port, north of Jakarta on January 12, 2021, which was recovered during search operations off the coast for the Boeing 737-500 which crashed into the Java Sea minutes after takeoff on January 9. (Photo by ADEK BERRY / AFP)
Indonesian divers returned Tuesday to a wreckage-littered seabed off Jakarta in their hunt for the black boxes that will likely be key to unlocking the mystery of why a passenger jet carrying 62 people fell from the sky.
Some 3,600 personnel are taking part in the recovery effort, assisted by dozens of boats and helicopters flying over small islands off the capital’s coast.
Underwater images from Indonesia’s navy showed divers plumbing the murky depths as they combed through twisted wreckage from the Sriwijaya Air Boeing 737-500, which plunged about 10,000 feet (3,000 metres) in less than a minute before slamming into the Java Sea Saturday.
Authorities have so far been unable to explain why the 26-year-old plane crashed just four minutes after takeoff.
But they say they have narrowed down the location of the black boxes to a 90 square-metre area after picking up signals from the devices, which record information about the speed, altitude and direction of the plane as well as flight crew conversations.
Black box data helps explain nearly 90 percent of all crashes, according to aviation experts.
But the boxes could be hidden under layers of mud or plane wreckage in waters about 23 metres (75 feet) deep, and divers have to grapple with a strong current and poor weather.
“They’ve got to go through garbage and other debris (on the seafloor) and the mud and visibility are also a challenge,” Yusuf Latif, a spokesman for Indonesia’s search-and-rescue agency, said Tuesday.
The agency deployed a remotely operated vehicle to assist the divers.
‘Hoping for a miracle’
Scores of body bags filled with human remains were being taken to a police morgue where forensic investigators hope to identify victims by matching fingerprints or DNA with distraught relatives — some held out hope of survivors.
“We haven’t accepted it yet,” Inda Gunawan said of his brother Didik Gunardi who was on the doomed Saturday flight.
“Our family is still hoping for a miracle that he is still alive.”
Authorities have identified flight attendant Okky Bisma, 29, as the first confirmed victim after matching fingerprints from a retrieved hand to those in a government identity database.
“Rest in peace up there darling and wait for me… in heaven,” Okky Bisma’s wife Aldha Refa wrote on Instagram.
There were 10 children among the passengers on the half-full plane, which had experienced pilots at the controls as it left Jakarta bound for Pontianak city on Borneo island on a 90-minute flight.
A transport safety agency investigator has said the crew did not declare an emergency or report technical problems with the plane before its dive, and that the 737 was likely intact when it hit the water.
Search-and-rescue agency chief Soerjanto Tjahjono echoed that view Tuesday, pointing to the relatively small area where debris was scattered.
“The size is consistent with the assumption that the plane didn’t explode before hitting the water,” he added.
“The damage seen on the retrieved fan blade also shows that the engine was still working” at the time of the crash.
The crash probe was likely to take months, but a preliminary report was expected in 30 days.
Aviation analysts said flight-tracking data showed the plane sharply deviated from its intended course before it went into a steep dive.
Plagued by safety concerns
Sriwijaya Air, which flies to destinations in Indonesia and Southeast Asia, has had safety incidents including runway overruns.
But it has not had a fatal crash since starting operations in 2003.
Its CEO has said the jet, which was previously flown by US-based Continental Airlines and United Airlines, was in fit condition.
Indonesia’s fast-growing aviation sector has long been plagued by safety concerns, and its airlines were once banned from US and European airspace.
In October 2018, 189 people were killed when a Lion Air Boeing 737 MAX jet crashed near Jakarta.
That accident — and another in Ethiopia — led to the grounding of the 737 MAX worldwide.
The 737 that went down Saturday was first produced decades ago and was not a MAX variant.