JAKARTA – Rescue officials said Monday that all 189 passengers and crew aboard a crashed Indonesian Lion Air jet were likely killed in the accident as they had found human remains and would continue the grim search through the night.
The Boeing-737 MAX, which went into service just months ago, vanished from radar 13 minutes after taking off from Jakarta, plunging into the Java Sea moments after it had asked to return to the Indonesian capital.
Flight JT 610 sped up as it suddenly lost altitude in the minutes before it disappeared, according to flight data tracking websites, with authorities saying witnesses saw the jet plunge into the water.
“The victims that we found, their bodies were no longer intact and it’s been hours so it is likely 189 people have died,” search and rescue agency operational director Bambang Suryo Aji told reporters.
Some 40 divers are part of about 150 personnel at the scene, authorities said, with wreckage from the jet some 30 to 40 metres deep in the water.
Earlier, video footage apparently filmed at the scene of the crash showed a slick of fuel on the surface of the water and pictures showed what appeared to be an emergency slide and bits of wreckage bearing Lion Air’s logo.
The carrier acknowledged that the jet had previously been grounded for unspecified repairs.
“It’s really a mystery what could have happened,” said Greg Waldron, Asia managing editor of industry publication Flightglobal.
The plane had been en route to Pangkal Pinang city, a jumping off point for beach-and-sun seeking tourists on nearby Belitung island, when it dropped out of contact around 6:30 am (2330 GMT).
Former professional cyclist Andrea Manfredi was a passenger on the flight, the Italian foreign ministry said.
“The memory of a serious guy and in love with his sport, will remain indelible in the minds of all those who, in these years, have had the good fortune to know him,” Bardiani-CSF, Manfredi’s former team, said in a statement.
Footage from Pangkal Pinang’s main airport showed families of passengers crying and hugging each other, with some calling out to god.
“This morning he called asking about our youngest son,” said a sobbing Ermayati, referring to her 45-year-old husband Muhammed Syafii, who was on board.
There were 178 adult passengers, one child, two infants, two pilots and six cabin crew aboard the flight, according to Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee (NTSC).
About 20 finance ministry employees were on the plane including half a dozen colleagues of Sony Setiawan, who missed check in for a flight he took weekly due to bad traffic.
“I know my friends were on that flight,” he said.
Setiawan said he was only informed about his lucky escape after he arrived in Pangkal Pinang on another flight.
“My family was in shock and my mother cried, but I told them I was safe, so I just have to be grateful.”
Lion Air said the plane had only gone into service in August.
The pilot and co-pilot had more than 11,000 hours of flying time between them and had recent medical check-ups and drug testing, it added.
Lion Air chief Edward Sirait said the plane had an unspecified technical issue fixed in Bali before it was flown back to Jakarta.
“Engineers in Jakarta received notes and did another repair before it took off” on Monday, Sirait said, calling it “normal procedure”.
US-based Boeing said it was “deeply saddened” by news of the crash.
Boeing reportedly suspended release of the 737 MAX just days out from its first commercial delivery last year due to an engine issue, according to airline safety and product review site airlineratings.com.
It said the engines were a product of a joint venture between US-based General Electric and France’s Safran Aircraft Engines.
Earlier this year, Lion Air announced it was buying 50 Boeing 737 MAX 10 jets for $6.24 billion.
Indonesia’s air travel industry is booming, with the number of domestic passengers growing significantly over the past decade, but it has acquired a reputation for poor regulation and its airlines had previously been banned from US and European airspace.
In August 2015, a commercial passenger aircraft operated by Indonesian carrier Trigana crashed in Papua due to bad weather, killing all 54 people on board.
A year earlier poor maintenance and inadequate pilot response was blamed for an AirAsia plane crash which cost 162 lives.
Lion, a low-cost airline which has engaged in a huge expansion in recent years, has been involved in a number of incidents including a fatal 2004 crash and a collision between two Lion Air planes at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta airport.