AirAsia flight QZ8501: Divers hunt for victims in main body of plane

PANGKALAN BUN, Indonesia (AFP) - Indonesian divers on Thursday headed to the main body of an AirAsia jet that crashed last month, hoping to recover more victims from the disaster, a day after it was finally located by a navy ship.

Flight QZ8501 went down on Dec 28 in stormy weather during a short trip from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore with 162 people on board.

After a lengthy search often hampered bad weather, a Singapore military vessel spotted the fuselage - the plane's main body, believed to be the resting place of most of the victims - at the bottom of the Java Sea on Wednesday.

Underwater photos taken by high-tech search equipment showed the fuselage and part of AirAsia's motto, "Now Everyone Can Fly", painted on the plane's exterior.

An advance team of 15 divers plunged into the water early Thursday to examine the main portion of the jet, S.B. Supriyadi, a rescue agency official coordinating the search, told AFP.

"They will first assess how many bodies are still trapped inside the fuselage," he said, adding that about 100 more divers would join the effort after the initial assessment.

"Hopefully we can retrieve all the victims as soon as possible."

Just 50 bodies have so far been recovered.

National search and rescue chief Bambang Soelistyo previously said that if divers had problems retrieving bodies from the wreckage while it is still on the seabed, officials would try to lift it.

The fuselage is attached to part of a wing, and the wreckage is 26m long.

Rescuers have already used giant balloons to lift the plane's tail out of the water, after it was found about 2km from the main body.

MV Swift Rescue, the Singaporean ship that located the fuselage, was part of a huge international hunt that also included US and Chinese ships.

Mr Soelistyo told reporters in Pangkalan Bun on Borneo island, the search headquarters, that the hunt was being scaled back now that the jet’s main body had been located.

All foreign vessels were beginning to leave the area from Thursday except for those from China, he said. Ten ships are currently in the search area.The discovery of the fuselage was the latest boost in the search effort following the retrieval this week of the jet's black boxes - the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder - which contain crucial information that should help determine why the plane went down.

The boxes - which are actually orange in colour - have been flown to Jakarta, where Indonesia's National Transportation Safety Committee is leading a probe into the accident, helped by experts from countries including France and the United States.

The country's meteorological agency has said bad weather may have caused the crash but only the black boxes will be able to provide definitive answers.

The flight data recorder holds a wealth of information about every major part of the plane, with details such as the jet's speed and the direction it was heading in, while the cockpit voice recorder stores radio transmissions and sounds in the cockpit.

Committee head Tatang Kurniadi said that 174 hours of data had been downloaded from the flight data recorder, and two hours and four minutes from the cockpit voice recorder. The data must be converted into a usable format before the lengthy analysis process can begin.

Before take-off, the plane's pilot had asked for permission to fly at a higher altitude to avoid a major storm but the request was not approved due to other planes above him on the popular route.

In his last communication, the experienced pilot said he wanted to change course to avoid the storm. Then all contact was lost, about 40 minutes after take-off.

All but seven of those on board the flight were Indonesian. The foreign nationals were from South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Britain and France.