The hunt for a missing AirAsia passenger plane appeared over Tuesday as wreckage and dozens of bodies were spotted at sea off Indonesia, prompting raw scenes of emotion from sobbing relatives of the 162 people aboard.
The Airbus A320-200 disappeared en route from Indonesia’s second largest city Surabaya to Singapore during a storm early Sunday.
All indications now are that it crashed in the Java Sea southwest of the island of Borneo, with debris and dozens of bodies retrieved so far.
An air force plane saw a “shadow” on the seabed believed to be of the missing Flight QZ8501, National Search and Rescue Agency chief Bambang Soelistyo told a news conference in Jakarta.
Relatives of the 162 missing hugged each other and burst into tears in Surabaya as they watched footage of one body floating in the sea on a television feed of Soelistyo’s press conference.
An Indonesian warship had recovered more than 40 bodies from the sea “and the number is growing”, navy spokesman Manahan Simorangkir told AFP shortly afterwards.
AirAsia’s flamboyant chief executive, Tony Fernandes, expressed his grief over the first fatal incident to hit the region’s biggest budget airline.
“My heart is filled with sadness for all the families involved in QZ 8501,” Fernandes said on Twitter, adding that he was rushing to Surabaya.
Initial news of the debris dimmed the faint hopes of relatives of those missing.
“If that news is true, what can I do? I cannot bring him back to life,” said Dwijanto, 60, whose son was on the plane along with five colleagues.
“My heart will be totally crushed if it’s true. I will lose a son,” he said.
Search chief Soelistyo said all efforts were now being concentrated on the location where the “shadow” and debris had been found, around 160 kilometres (100 miles) southwest of the town of Pangkalan Bun in Central Kalimantan on Borneo island.
The town has the nearest airstrip and is not far from the plane’s last known position.
President Joko Widodo was expected in Pangkalan Bun shortly and then head to Surabaya to meet the relatives, officials said.
Indonesian officials had already been preparing relatives for the worst, with Soelistyo saying Monday it was likely the plane was at “the bottom of the sea”, based on its estimated position.
The aircraft lost contact early on Sunday about 40 minutes after takeoff, after the crew requested a change of flight plan due to stormy weather, in the third crisis for a Malaysian carrier this year.
In his last communication, the pilot said he wanted to avoid a menacing storm system, before all contact was lost.
Before take-off the pilot had asked for permission to fly at a higher level to avoid the storm but his request was not approved due to heavy traffic on the popular route, according to AirNav, Indonesia’s flight navigation service.
In his final communication, the pilot asked to alter his course and repeated his original request to ascend to avoid the bad weather.
“The pilot requested to air traffic controllers to deviate to the left side due to bad weather, which was immediately approved,” AirNav safety director Wisnu Darjono told AFP.
“After a few seconds the pilot requested to ascend from 32,000 to 38,000 feet but could not be immediately approved as some planes were flying above it at that time,” he said.
That was the last communication with the flight.
“Two to three minutes later when the controller was going to give a clearance to a level of 34,000, the plane did not give any response,” Darjono said.
Indonesia’s neighbours had responded swiftly with offers of help.
Australia, Singapore and Malaysia sent maritime surveillance aircraft and warships to assist in the search, joining Indonesian planes, ships and scores of fishing boats scouring the waters for signs of the ill-fated aircraft.
The operation had drawn comparisons with the ongoing search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 off Australia, but Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot said it did not appear to be a great mystery, with bad weather the likely cause this time.
China, which had 152 citizens on board MH370, offered to send a frigate and military aircraft to help with the search.
The missing plane was operated by AirAsia Indonesia, a unit of Malaysian-based AirAsia which dominates Southeast Asia’s booming low-cost airline market and had never suffered a fatal accident. Most of the passengers were Indonesian.
The crash comes at the end of a disastrous year for Malaysian aviation.