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‘Totally Destroyed’ Indonesia Jet in Java Sea Makes Search Almost Impossible

2021-01-25 06:00:39
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Bayu Wardoyo tends to skip the 6am breakfast of Indonesian fried rice served to divers on the ship looking for wreckage from the Sriwijaya Air passenger jet that arrived in the Java Sea has crashed. He prefers coffee, light snacks and some fruits to prepare for the long day ahead.

Later in the morning, dressed in a black wetsuit and burdened with diving equipment, he board a speedboat and set off under heavy monsoon clouds for the day's search area. Once there, Wardoyo attaches his dive controller and rolls overboard into waters full of new tragedy.

Indonesia has suffered various air disasters over the past decade, and Wardoyo has been involved in more than his share of submarine searches. The 49-year-old was working on repairs after an AirAsia plane with 162 people on board Went down in the Java Sea in December 2014. Less than four years later, he returned to the same waters to hunt wreckage and bodies in the aftermath of a Lion Air crash that claimed 189 lives. Now he's back there after Sriwijaya Air Flight 182 crashed into the ocean with 62 people on board. Among them were seven children and three babies.

He has never seen a crash as devastating as this one.

“This crash in Sriwijaya is the worst. The fuselage has been completely destroyed and scattered, ”Wardoyo said by text message. "We only found small pieces of human remains. In the Lion Air crash we still found large pieces and in the AirAsia crash we found almost a complete human body."

SJ182 plummeted nearly 10,000 feet (3,050 meters) in 14 seconds shortly after takeoff from Jakarta on a stormy Saturday afternoon. The National Transport Safety Commission of Indonesia has confirmed that the Boeing Co. 737-500 & # 39; s engines were running when the plane hit the sea at high speed, indicating that the plane was in one piece on impact. What triggered the violent dive remains a mystery.

One possibility researchers are investigating is that the pilots are losing control because a faulty throttle produced more thrust in one of the engines, said a person familiar with the situation. The device had problems on previous flights, the person said.

As the search begins in the second week, hopes are fading that the cockpit voice recorder – a crucial puzzle piece in figuring out what unfolded – will ever be found. Divers took the case back of the so-called black box on Friday, but the memory chip that records communication between pilots and ambient noise in the cockpit had broken loose.

The flight data recorder was recovered last week and will provide clues as to whether this was a problem with the Boeing plane, a pilot error, a freak weather event, or something completely different. But the investigation is paralyzed without the other black box. The locator beacons from both were dislodged when the plane crashed into the water, a blow so hard it would have been as against concrete, according to Queensland-based air safety specialist Geoffrey Dell.

With the AirAsia crash in 2014, "the aircraft body was still intact – only broken into three pieces, so we had to pull bodies out of the plane," said Wardoyo.

“The Lion Air crash was different, the fuselage fell apart, but we could still find large pieces of the fuselage. Sriwijaya is the worst, ”he said.

Indonesian investigators extended the search period, extending the divers' stay on the command ship off the coast in northern Jakarta, but stopped the hunt for victims on Thursday afternoon. Wardoyo leads a group of 15 professional civilian divers with various qualifications, such as deep sea exploration and cave diving. One is a police officer and diving instructor. The team of volunteers supports specialist divers from the National Search and Rescue Agency of Basarnas. He's not optimistic about restoring the rest of the voice recorder.

“Since the fuselage is completely disintegrating into small pieces and the seabed is very thick mud, it would be very difficult to collect anything after more than seven days,” said Wardoyo. "It's almost impossible to find the memory or any other part of the recorder."

An official from the Indonesian NTSC said on Tuesday that cockpit voice recorder data was needed to support the flight data analysis findings. Representatives from Boeing, the US National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Aviation Administration, and General Electric Co. have traveled to Indonesia to assist in the investigation. A preliminary report on the crash should be published within 30 days, local authorities said Tuesday.

Bad weather and high seas in the monsoon season in Indonesia complicated recovery efforts. "Big swells, high winds, and rain don't affect the divers below, but it makes it difficult for the surface team operating dinghies and dinghies," Wardoyo said. "It also makes it more difficult for divers to switch to the mothership in bad weather."

According to Wardoyo, the command ship had to return to shore early Wednesday after it was damaged in a collision with another boat in heavy swell and high winds at about 1 a.m. The divers returned to the crash site later that morning with a smaller boat.

While diving carries some risk regardless of the conditions, it is amplified during a search mission, Wardoyo said. Shark attacks aren't a problem, but decompression sickness, drowning, and even overexertional heart attacks caused by lifting heavy pieces of wreckage in strong currents are among the dangers, he said.

"We don't take credit for this, but at least we can help others with our expertise," said Wardoyo. "Everyone would do the same."

The challenging conditions may prompt authorities to use other means to collect aircraft waste rather than relying on divers, Jakarta-based aviation analyst Gerry Soejatman said. "They can use vacuum pumps or dredge once all the victims have been identified or if there are no human remains on the scene," he said.

Wardoyo, who lives in Jakarta with his wife, has been involved in the search since the day after the crash. At sea, the teams wake up early, around 5am, and after breakfast, a briefing is held on the plans for the day. Wardoyo leads these meetings together with the commander of the Basarnas specialized dive team. Weather permitting, they'll go on dinghies or rigid inflatables to the search area at 8 or 9 a.m.

On good days, visibility is three to five meters underwater, but this week it dropped to a meter or less, Wardoyo said. In the aftermath of the crash, Indonesian officials briefed the media about the number of bags with body parts and plane wreckage being landed. Members of Wardoyo's team, in accordance with Basarnas protocol, wear surgical gloves under diving gloves for handling human remains.

“It's not nice to us, but we always think about the families who have lost loved ones,” said Wardoyo. "It's not easy, we have to go one step at a time."

–With the help of Harry Suhartono, Adrian Leung, Alan Levin and Angus Whitley.

Top photo: Divers retrieving bags full of debris and body parts off the coast of Jakarta on January 11. Photographer: Demy Sanjaya / AFP / Getty Images

Copyright 2021 Bloomberg.

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