Hopes fade of finding more AirAsia crash victims

Olivia Rondonuwu

Jakarta (AFP) - Hopes faded Wednesday of finding 92 victims still missing from an AirAsia plane crash as Indonesian search and rescue authorities said the remaining bodies could have been swept away or lost on the seabed.

Flight QZ8501 went down in the Java Sea on December 28 in stormy weather with 162 people on board, during what was supposed to be a short trip from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore.

So far just 70 bodies have been recovered. Authorities had hoped that the majority of the passengers and crew would be in the plane's main section, but after several days searching the fuselage, they said no more bodies could be located.

"They could be on the seabed, or have been swept away by waves and currents," S.B. Supriyadi, a search and rescue agency official who has been coordinating the hunt, told AFP.

The Indonesian military, which has provided the bulk of personnel and equipment for the operation, withdrew from the search Tuesday due to the failure to find more victims, and after several failed attempts to lift the damaged fuselage.

The country's civilian search and rescue agency has said it will push on with the hunt for at least a week, with three aircraft, several ships, and divers.

While Supriyadi suggested it would be tough to find any more victims, the agency's chief Bambang Soelistyo nevertheless said he was "optimistic".

Soelistyo said search and rescue teams were being given two days' break after weeks searching in inhospitable conditions, but will push on with the hunt afterwards.

- 'Find our loved ones' -

Some divers were suffering from decompression sickness, which typically affects those who have ascended too quickly from great depth, or have not taken long enough breaks between dives, the agency said.

Dariyanto, whose sister and husband were on the flight and remain missing, said he hoped that rescuers would continue the search for as long as possible.

"We are thankful to the rescuers but as families, we still want our loved ones to be found," the man, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, told AFP.

"We understand that not everyone can be retrieved, but we are willing to accept their bodies, in whatever condition."

The agency said that the main aim of the operation is to find more bodies, and not to lift the plane's fuselage, which has split in two.

However, analysts have reacted with surprise to the suggestion that the rest of the wreckage might be left on the seabed, as retrieving it would help with the investigation into the crash.

The jet's black boxes -- the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder -- have been recovered, and investigators are analysing them. A preliminary report into the accident is being completed this week.

Indonesian Transport Minister Ignasius Jonan said last week that the plane climbed abnormally fast before stalling and plunging into the sea.

Just moments before the plane disappeared off the radar, the pilot had asked to climb to avoid a major storm but was not immediately granted permission due to heavy air traffic.

Indonesia's meteorological agency has said weather could have caused the accident, but only the black boxes will be able to give definitive answers.