Family members of those aboard AirAsia Flight 8501 collapsed in agony Tuesday as images of debris and a bloated body flashed across Indonesian television screens, proof that the plane crashed into the sea two days earlier with 162 people on board.
The jet vanished Sunday halfway through a two-hour flight between Surabaya, Indonesia, and Singapore after encountering severe storms. The disappearance triggered an international hunt for the aircraft by dozens of planes, ships and helicopters.
On the third day of searching, the first signs of the airliner – a life jacket and an emergency exit door – were found in shallow, aqua-colored waters only about 10 miles (16 kilometers) from the plane’s last known coordinates. Parts of the jetliner’s interior, including an oxygen tank, were brought to the nearest town, Pangkalan Bun. Another find included a bright blue plastic suitcase, completely unscratched.
“I know the plane has crashed, but I cannot believe my brother and his family are dead,” said Ifan Joko, who lost seven relatives, three of them children, as they traveled to Singapore to ring in the New Year. “We still pray they are alive.”
First Adm. Sigit Setiayanta, commander of the Naval Aviation Center at Surabaya Air Force base, told reporters six corpses were spotted about 160 kilometers (100 miles) from Central Kalimantan province.
Rescue workers descended on ropes from a hovering helicopter to retrieve bodies. Efforts were hindered by 2-meter-high (6-foot) waves and strong winds, National Search and Rescue Director SB Supriyadi said.
The first body was later picked up by a navy ship. Officials said as many as six others followed, but they disagreed about the exact number.
Supriyadi was on the aircraft and saw what appeared to be more wreckage under the water, which was clear and a relatively shallow 20 to 30 meters (65 to 100 feet).
Television coverage of the discovery sent a spasm of pain through the room at the Surabaya airport where relatives were waiting for news, especially as it showed a half-naked man floating in the water, a shirt partially covering his head.
Many screamed and wailed uncontrollably, breaking down into tears while they squeezed each other. One middle-aged man collapsed and had to be carried out on a stretcher.
Their horror at the news was captured by cameras on the other side of windows into the waiting room. To give traumatized family members privacy, officials blacked out the glass later Tuesday evening.
Around 125 family members were planning to travel Wednesday to Pangkalan Bun to start identifying their loved ones. Body bags and coffins have been prepared at hospitals there, while dozens of elite military divers will join the massive search. They are desperate to scour the water ahead of approaching rough weather.
Malaysia-based AirAsia’s loss comes on top of the still-unsolved disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in March with 239 people aboard, and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July over Ukraine, which killed all 298 passengers and crew.
Nearly all the passengers and crew were Indonesians, who are frequent visitors to Singapore, particularly on holidays.
Haidar Fauzie, 60, said his youngest child and only daughter, Khairunnisa Haidar, was a flight attendant who had worked with AirAsia for two years.
On learning about the crash, he struggled to console his grieving wife. They last saw their child six weeks ago, when she returned home on holiday.
“From the start, we already knew the risks associated with being a stewardess,” Fauzie said. “She is beautiful and smart. It has always been her dream to fly. We couldn’t have stopped her.”
Before flying to Surabaya to pay his respects to the families, AirAsia group CEO Tony Fernandes tweeted, “My heart is filled with sadness for all the families involved in QZ 8501. On behalf of AirAsia, my condolences to all. Words cannot express how sorry I am.”
Fernandes, the founder and public face of AirAsia, and a constant presence in Indonesia since the tragedy started unfolding, said he planned to travel to the recovery site on Wednesday.
“I have apologized profusely for what they are going through,” he said of his contact with relatives. “I am the leader of this company, and I have to take responsibility. That is why I’m here. I’m not running away from my obligations.”
It is not clear what brought the plane down.
The last communication indicated the pilots were worried about bad weather. They sought permission to climb above threatening clouds but were denied due to heavy air traffic. Four minutes later, the jet disappeared from the radar without issuing a distress signal.
The plane’s cockpit voice and flight data recorders, or black boxes, have yet to be recovered. Scott Hamilton, managing director of aviation consultancy Leeham Co., said in a post on his website that autopsies may provide some of the earliest clues about what happened.
“If death was due to blunt-force trauma, this could suggest passengers were alive upon impact with the water,” he wrote. “If death came from other circumstances, this could suggest an explosive decompression and in-flight break up occurred.”
Several countries rushed to Indonesia to help with search and recovery efforts.
The United States said it was sending the USS Sampson destroyer, joining at least 30 ships, 15 aircraft and seven helicopters in the search for the jet.
A Chinese frigate was on the way. Singapore said it was sending two underwater beacon detectors to try to pick up pings from the plane’s all-important cockpit voice and flight-data recorders. Malaysia, Australia and Thailand are also involved in the search.