Piece by tragic piece: AirAsia search turns up big parts in Java Sea

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AirAsia Flight QZ8501

(CNN) — Search teams have now recovered four large pieces of debris believed to be parts of AirAsia flight QZ8501, the head of Indonesia’s search and rescue agency announced Saturday.

Chief Bambang Sulistyo said the latest objects — including one that is 18 meters (59 feet) long — were located by sonar in the priority search area.

Searchers came upon the metal parts after spotting an oil slick late Friday. An Indonesian ship checking it out detected the metal underwater with a device on board. Also on Friday, a piece was found that appeared to belong to a plane’s fuselage — its main body, Singaporean officials said. It looked like a wall with two passenger plane windows.

Sulistyo said bad weather conditions — including 15-foot waves and strong underwater currents — prevented divers from conducting searches Saturday, meaning no additional bodies were recovered. The forecast Sunday called for more favorable conditions, he said.

Sinking bodies

Anton Castilani is eager to get the rest of the victims out of the waters before they sink to the bottom of the sea. He is in charge of identifying them and said that gases in the bodies that keep them afloat disperse after a few days in the water.

It’s been nearly a week already. The plane went missing on Sunday.

He urged families to be patient with his team as they identify their loved ones. He wants to do his work right. “We have to make sure that we have to return that right body to the right family,” he said.

Decomposition also slows his work down. “The later the dead bodies come to you, the harder you work,” he said. His team uses fingerprints and dental records as well as DNA to find out who they have recovered.

Recoveries, identifications

On Friday, the USS Sampson, which the U.S. Navy has deployed to help, recovered some bodies. Altogether the number retrieved rose to 30.

A limited number of them will be autopsied to determine the cause of death to aid the investigation, an Indonesian official said on Saturday. Many families don’t want them done.

“For the sake of the investigation we agree, and it is accepted by Interpol, to perform autopsies on the pilot, co-pilot and some randomly selected passengers,” said East Java Police Chief Anas Yusuf.

Four of the plane’s victims have been identified. The first, Hayati Lutfiah Hamid, was laid to rest on Thursday.

AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes said he was traveling to Surabaya, Indonesia, to bring home the body of flight attendant Khairunisa Haidar Fauzi.

“I cannot describe how I feel. There are no words,” he said on Twitter.

Search priorities

Finding the fuselage and black box of the Airbus A320-200 have priority for the 59 diving teams searching underneath the waves. Russia has joined the effort with 22 underwater teams along with a search plane and a cargo jet.

The searchers are concentrating on a 1,575 square nautical mile zone that officials believe is the “most probable area” to find the remains of the aircraft.

Here’s a wrap-up of where things stand on Flight QZ8501:

The flight

What we know: QZ8501 took off early Sunday from Surabaya, bound for Singapore. Roughly 35 minutes into the flight, the pilot asked air traffic control for permission to turn left and climb to avoid bad weather. Minutes later, the plane disappeared from air traffic control’s radar.

What we don’t know: What happened on board after contact with the plane was lost. No distress call was received.

Some experts speculate that the aircraft might have experienced an aerodynamic stall because of a lack of speed or from flying at too sharp an angle to get enough lift. Other theories include a lack of information about the plane’s position, or storm damage to the engines.

The investigation

What we know: The “black boxes” are key. Actually, they’re orange and should be located in the plane’s tail. A lab in Jakarta will analyze them, if they are recovered. The batteries powering the “pingers” that send acoustic signals have only about 24 days of power left.

What we don’t know: What destroyed the plane. Investigators will need to use information gleaned from the flight recorders and clues from the wreckage to try to find out.

“The more bits I can put into my mosaic, the better my picture will be,” aviation safety expert Michael Barr said. But the conditions at sea make that work much more difficult than on land due to currents and winds.

The plane and the pilots

What we know: The Airbus, operated by AirAsia’s Indonesian affiliate, had accumulated about 23,000 flight hours in about 13,600 flights in six years. The plane’s last scheduled maintenance was on November 16.

Flight 8501’s veteran captain, Iriyanto, 53, had 20,537 flying hours, 6,100 of them with AirAsia on the Airbus A320, the airline said. The first officer, Remi Emmanuel Plesel, 46, had 2,275 flying hours, a reasonable amount for his position.

What we don’t know: Did technical problems or human error have anything to do with the crash. A major aviation database registers 54 incidents involving the A320.

Some A320 accidents and incidents involve fan-cowl detachments, landing gear collapse, bird strikes and pilot error, an expert said. These only cause disasters in very rare cases.

Security threat?

Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta issued a security alert Saturday after being “made aware of a potential threat against U.S.-associated hotels and banks in Surabaya.” No additional information was given regarding the nature of the threat, but the Embassy recommended “heightened vigilance and awareness of one’s surroundings when visiting such facilities.”