Bad weather hampers bid to reach Indonesian plane crash site, search called off for the night

Representatives from the Indonesian National Search and Rescue Agency show a picture of the suspected crash site of a Trigana Air ATR 42 plane shortly after a press conference in Jakarta, Indonesia on Aug 17.
Representatives from the Indonesian National Search and Rescue Agency show a picture of the suspected crash site of a Trigana Air ATR 42 plane shortly after a press conference in Jakarta, Indonesia on Aug 17. PHOTO: EPA

JAYAPURA, Indonesia (AFP) - Bad weather hampered efforts on Monday to reach debris in remote eastern Indonesian mountains believed to be from a plane that crashed carrying 54 people and cash worth 6.5 billion rupiah (S$650,000).

A plane on Monday spotted debris engulfed in smoke in the mountains near Oksibil and search teams, including soldiers and police, set off in the early hours to reach the site, which is at an altitude of 2,500m.

But thick fog, which reduced visibility to 1m, and rain hindered the bid to reach the crash site, the head of Indonesia's search and rescue agency Bambang Soelistyo told AFP.

Efforts to reach the location, about 15km from Oksibil, were called off for the day at 5.30pm local time and would resume on Tuesday, he added.

More than 250 rescuers had tried to battle through dense forest to reach what is thought to be the wreckage of the Trigana Air plane, which disappeared on Sunday during a short flight in Papua province.

A photo of the suspected site showed an area that appeared to be fire-blackened and scattered with debris in thick forest, and Mr Soelistyo said he was "98 per cent" certain it was the location of the crash.

He said the chance of any survivors was "very slim". All those on the plane were believed to be Indonesians.

Relatives of passengers were becoming increasingly frustrated at the lack of hard news.

Some shouted "We want confirmation!" and threw a table at a crisis centre set up by Trigana Air at Jayapura airport.

"My family and I have been gathered here for hours. We want to know the fate of my brother Kepi Deal, who was on board the plane," Mr Rifan Wea, one of about 100 relatives at the airport, told AFP.

"We want to know whether he is dead or alive."

The ATR 42-300 twin-turboprop plane was carrying 49 passengers and five crew member on the journey from Papua's capital Jayapura to Oksibil, a remote settlement in the mountains to the south.

Also on the plane was 6.5 billion rupiah in cash, which were social assistance funds being transported for distribution to poor families, according to the head of the Jayapura post office. The cash was being carried by four post office officials in bags.

The plane disappeared about 10 minutes before reaching its destination, soon after the crew requested permission to start descending in heavy cloud to land.

It is just the latest air accident in Indonesia, which has a poor aviation safety record and has suffered major disasters in recent months, including the crash of an AirAsia plane in December with the loss of 162 lives.

Small aircraft are commonly used for transport in remote and mountainous Papua and bad weather has caused several accidents in recent years.

Last week, a Cessna propeller plane crashed in Papua's Yahukimo district, killing one person and seriously injuring the five others on board. Officials suspect that crash was caused by bad weather.

Trigana Air, a small domestic Indonesian airline, has experienced a string of serious incidents and is banned from flying in European Union airspace.

Last year's AirAsia crash was one of two major air accidents that Indonesia has suffered in the past year alone.

The second incident happened in June when an Indonesian military plane crashed into a residential neighbourhood in the city of Medan, exploding in a fireball and killing 142 people.

The aviation sector in Indonesia is expanding fast as the economy booms but airlines are struggling to find enough well-trained personnel to keep up with the rapid growth.