AFP _ The hunt for a missing AirAsia passenger plane appeared at an end Tuesday as wreckage and 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 including an exit door, a blue suitcase and bodies retrieved from the area.
An air force plane saw a “shadow” on the seabed believed to be that of the missing Flight QZ8501, National Search and Rescue Agency chief Bambang Soelistyo told a news conference in Jakarta.
Relatives of the 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.
Later Tuesday the search chief said just three bodies had been recovered so far, after another official said 40 had been found.
Navy spokesman Manahan Simorangkir told AFP earlier that according to naval radio a warship had recovered more than 40 bodies from the sea. But he later said that report was a miscommunication by his staff.
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, before rushing to Surabaya.
Initial news of the debris dimmed the faint hopes of relatives.
“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 praised the search teams and said three warships were heading to the location.
“Tomorrow there will be a massive search by the ships and helicopters,” he said after flying over the area and visiting Pangkalan Bun.
“I would like to thank our close friends, the countries who have helped the search from Singapore, Malaysia and Australia,” he said.
“And for the families of the passengers and crew, I also feel the loss from this tragedy and we all pray for the families to be given fortitude and strength to face this tragedy,” he said at a brief appearance in Surabaya between meeting relatives.
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. Then 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.
“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.
China, which had 152 citizens on board Malaysia Airlines MH370 which vanished in March, 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. Of the 162 passengers and crew, 155 were Indonesian.
The crash comes at the end of a disastrous year for Malaysian aviation.
Flight MH370 disappeared while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew, and in July another Malaysia Airlines flight – MH17 – was shot down over unrest-hit Ukraine, killing all 298 on board.