AirAsia flight QZ8501: Sister learnt brother was on plane from selfie

Relatives of Hendra Gunawan Sawal, a passenger of AirAsia flight QZ8501, hold a prayer ceremony for him in Surabaya on Jan 4, 2015. Indonesian Yunita Syawal first feared that her brother was on AirAsia Flight 8501 when she was sent a selfie of h
Relatives of Hendra Gunawan Sawal, a passenger of AirAsia flight QZ8501, hold a prayer ceremony for him in Surabaya on Jan 4, 2015. Indonesian Yunita Syawal first feared that her brother was on AirAsia Flight 8501 when she was sent a selfie of him and his friends boarding one of the carrier's planes at Surabaya airport. -- PHOTO: AFP

SURABAYA (AFP) - Indonesian Yunita Syawal first feared that her brother was on AirAsia Flight 8501 when she was sent a selfie of him and his friends boarding one of the carrier's planes at Surabaya airport.

As they went aboard the aircraft on December 28, bound for a New Year's Eve break in Singapore, 23-year-old Hendra Gunawan Syawal and three of his friends paused for a moment to take a photo.

The flight left Indonesia's second city early in the morning with 162 people on board. But about 40 minutes later it disappeared from radar screens during a storm over the Java Sea.

Yunita, 25, heard about the missing plane through social media. A short while later, a friend of her brother who had received the selfie forwarded her the picture - but she still wasn't sure if Hendra was on the flight, which was then missing and presumed crashed.

A call to her parents confirmed her worst fears and "I immediately flew to Surabaya," she told AFP.

Yunita, who lives in Jakarta, said she and her brother, who ran a logistics business in Surabaya, kept in close touch on their phones. He often sent her jokes and details of his travel plans.

"He would always inform me before travelling anywhere. He would ask me what I wanted him to buy for me. But the strangest thing was, when we spoke the previous night, he did not mention about going to Singapore."

After arriving in Surabaya herself, Yunita faced a hellish week anxiously waiting for news.

First, it was finding out what had happened to the plane. Then it was whether rescuers could locate her brother's body, she said.

On Saturday, six days after the crash, Hendra's body was identified as one of the 31 that have so far been recovered.

When Yunita saw the body lying in a coffin, she immediately knew it was her younger brother - from his haircut.

Just a day before, Hendra had sent his sister a picture of his new crewcut from his mobile phone.

- 'We know he's gone' -

"Even after days, we still kept thinking he's alive, but now that we have seen his body, we know he's gone for sure," said Yunita. "There is a void left in my heart, but I hope in time I will heal."

The fourth of five siblings, Hendra was the joker who loved to tease his family, his sister said. He enjoyed playing badminton and swimming and had a passion for cars.

Now his coffin, adorned with a white and yellow chrysanthemum spray, lies at the funeral parlour where owner Lim Ou Yen is preparing to accept 80 bodies from the crash, which has shaken the city.

Flower-adorned boards offering messages of condolence stand outside the parlour's hall number 9, where Hendra's smiling picture sits on an altar next to his casket.

One sign bears a message from AirAsia: "Sharing Your Sorrow".

Relatives are preparing a final Buddhist funeral rite before Hendra's body is taken to the cemetery.

"Our family is now focused on sending him to his last resting place," said his sister.

Since the disaster, relief teams have found various parts of the plane on the seabed, but they are struggling to locate the remaining bodies as bad weather and choppy seas complicate the recovery effort.

Of those on board the flight, 155 were Indonesian, with three South Koreans, one Singaporean, on Malaysian, one Briton and a Frenchman.

"I am glad that my brother's body has been found, but I really hope the other passengers can be found as soon as possible. We all need closure," said Yunita.

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