Indonesian authorities hold little hope of finding survivors from the passenger plane that crashed shortly after take off Monday, as a grim ocean search uncovers human remains, aircraft debris and personal belongings.
At least six bodies have been recovered from the Java Sea off the coast of Jakarta on Tuesday morning as search continues for the main body of the near-new Lion Air jet carrying 189 passengers and crew.
Distraught family members struggled to comprehend the sudden loss of loved ones after the crash, which took place without warning in fine weather with experienced pilots at the controls.
And as investigators look for a reason why the Boeing 737 Max 8 jet crashed, details have emerged of a previous “technical problem’ with the aircraft.
Boeing said it was “deeply saddened” by the crash and is prepared to provide technical assistance to Indonesia’s crash probe.
Lion Air president-director Edward Sirait said the plane which was only delivered in August, had a “technical problem” on its previous flight from Bali to Jakarta but it had been fully remedied.
A technical log obtained by the BBC from the plane’s previous flight suggested that the airspeed reading on the captain’s instrument was unreliable, and the altitude readings differed on the captain’s and first officer’s instruments.
“Identified that CAPT [captain’s] instrument was unreliable and handover control to FO [first officer],” the BBC reported the log as stating.
“Continue NNC of Airspeed Unreliable and ALT disagree.”
The crew on that flight elected to continue their flight and landed safely at Jakarta.
An air transport official, Novie Riyanto, said the flight was cleared to return to Jakarta on Monday after the pilot made a “return to base” request two to three minutes after taking off.
The plane plunged into the sea about 10 minutes later. Weather conditions were normal.
Relatives and friends wept, prayed and hugged each other as they waited at Jakarta’s airport and at Pangkal Pinang’s airport on Bangka island off Sumatra, where the flight was heading.
The plane was reportedly carrying a number of children, along with about 20 Indonesian Finance Ministry staff.
The passengers’ families gathered at crisis centres set up by the authorities at airports, hoping desperately for a miracle. But a top search official has said that no survivors are expected.
The 737 Max 8 was leased from China Minsheng Investment Group Leasing Holdings, according to the official China News Service.
The disaster is a setback for Indonesia’s airline industry, which just emerged from decade-long bans by the European Union and the US over safety concerns.
President Joko Widodo ordered an investigation and urged Indonesians to “keep on praying”.
The crash of the aircraft on Monday is the latest in a series of tragedies that have struck Indonesia this year, including earthquakes and a tsunami that killed several thousand people.
More than 300 people including soldiers, police and fishermen are involved in the search for the plane, retrieving aircraft debris and personal items such as a crumpled mobile phone, ID cards and carry-on bags from the seas northeast of Jakarta.
Search and Rescue Agency chief Muhammad Syaugi said he is certain it will not take long to locate the hull of the aircraft and its black box because of the relatively shallow (30-35m) depth of the waters it plunged into.
Three specialised search ships, including one from Singapore, are to expected help with the search.
Lion Air said there were two foreigners on the plane: one of the pilots, Indian national Bhavye Suneja, and an Italian citizen.
The pilot of Flight 610 had more than 6000 flying hours while the co-pilot had more than 5000 hours, according to Lion Air.
The crash is the worst airline disaster in Indonesia since an AirAsia flight from Surabaya to Singapore plunged into the sea in December 2014, killing all 162 on board.