Indonesia hunts for AirAsia plane believed ‘at bottom of sea’

Jakarta – Multinational search teams hunted today for any sign of an AirAsia plane missing off Indonesia with 162 people on board, but one top official warned it was likely at the bottom of the sea.

Australia, Singapore and Malaysia deployed planes and ships to assist in the search as anguished relatives anxiously waited for news of their loved ones more than a day after Flight QZ8501 disappeared over the Java Sea.

The Airbus A320-200 lost contact en route from Surabaya in Indonesia’s east Java to Singapore yesterday after the crew requested a change of flight plan due to stormy weather, in the third crisis for a Malaysian carrier this year.

“Based on the coordinates given to us and evaluation that the estimated crash position is in the sea, the hypothesis is the plane is at the bottom of the sea,” National Search and Rescue Agency chief Bambang Soelistyo told journalists.

“That’s the preliminary suspicion and it can develop based on the evaluation of the result of our search,” he said.

Currently search teams are scouring an area where the sea is 40-50 metres deep, he said, adding that Indonesia was coordinating with other countries to access any equipment that may be needed to scour the sea bed.

“Due to the lack of technology that we have, I have coordinated with our foreign minister so we will borrow from other countries which have offered. They are the UK, France and US,” he said.

“It is not easy to look for something underwater ... That will not break our spirit to continue searching, no way.”

Distraught relatives spent the night in Surabaya hoping for news of their loved ones as international teams expanded their search area for the lost plane.

Vicky said he had not given up hope of finding his two siblings who were on the flight, and criticised an airline official who said he shared the families’ “sadness” at the plane’s disappearance.

“What he said was not appropriate at all. If they were sad it means there’s death. But the flight has not been found yet,” he told AFP.

AirAsia said 155 of those on board flight QZ8501 were Indonesian, with three South Koreans and one person each from Singapore, Malaysia, Britain and France. The Frenchman was the co-pilot.

Air traffic controllers lost contact with the twin-engine aircraft around an hour after it left Surabaya’s Juanda international airport at about 5:35am local time.

Shortly before disappearing, the pilot asked to ascend by 6000 feet to 38 000 feet to avoid heavy clouds, according to an Indonesian transport ministry official.

“But their request to fly to 38 000 feet from 32 000 feet could not be approved at that time due to traffic, there was a flight above, and five minutes later the flight disappeared from radar,” Djoko Murjatmodjo told a press conference yesterday.

The search is focused on waters around the islands of Bangka and Belitung in the Java Sea, across from Kalimantan on Borneo island, but the army has also been asked to carry out ground searches, including in mountainous areas.

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