Indonesia continues search for bodies after military plane crash in Medan

Bodies that have been identified are returned to families, while those that need DNA tests for identification are sent to Jakarta.
Bodies that have been identified are returned to families, while those that need DNA tests for identification are sent to Jakarta.ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Medan - Indonesian soldiers continued searching for bodies trapped under rubble two days after a military plane crashed into the city of Medan and exploded in a fireball shortly after taking off from a nearby airbase.

Plane fuselage and other major parts had been recovered, but some debris from the plane could be seen on the ground when The Straits Times visited the crash site on Thursday.

The area was partially cordoned off with barbed wire but at times, reporters, cameramen and photographers were allowed in to take a closer look.

The authorities have said that the search will end later on Thursday.

Officials said there were 122 people on the flight, most were servicemen and their families. Brig Gen Arthur Tampi, who is in charge of the victims' identification process, said they have yet to determine the final death toll, or the numbers of soldiers and civilians killed, including those on the ground.  


Military soldiers, police officers and search dogs searching for more bodies and clearing debris. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Eye witnesses said the plane was flying very low and appeared to be in trouble soon after it took off on Tuesday. It reportedly made a right turn, then stalled and crashed two minutes later into a massage parlour and hotel.

"First it was like very loud wind tunnel sound, then like hundreds of firecrackers going off, followed by two big bangs like bombs,'' Ms Lenny Boru Simamora, 38, told The Straits Times. She is an employee of Beraspati Hotel, a cottage-style building next to the crash site. 


Military soldiers, police officers and search dogs searching for more bodies and clearing debris. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

"Then we saw huge fire going up high through our window. We didn't have any idea what it was until a relative called me and said: 'Get out of there! A Hercules plane crashed there!' " she recounted.

"It felt like an earthquake. We were only tens of metres from where the plane crashed. I was cleaning a room when it happened," she said.


A soldier standing in front of a empty burnt building. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Part of the roof and the ceiling in the hotel office collapsed due to the impact. Debris from the plane which resembled parts of a wing was found on the roof of one of the hotel rooms.

"I informed the police doing search and rescue that we had a plane's wing on top of our roof," said Ms Lenny.

Ms Sumirah Sembiring, the 52-year-old owner of restaurant Padang Bulan Prima that is across the street from the crash site, was frying catfish when the crash happened.

"I heard loud sound and when I stepped out, I saw a plane flying so low and so close before it quickly slammed into a shophouse in front of me."

Her restaurant is about 20m from the crash site.

The plane slammed into the BS Okup massage parlour, which was completely flattened.

"I figure there are at least eight people inside the message parlour - therapists, employees as well as customers," said Mr Simon Sinulingga, husband of Ms Sumirah.   

The recovery teams had retrieved 10 out of 12 military weapons including assault rifles and pistols. But more than 3,000 ammunition in boxes were still missing.

"We do not want this to fall in the hands of any irresponsible party who may misuse them. We have been guarding the area tightly since day 1," said Captain Suprihanto Parjamiadi, deputy police chief of Medan's Deli Tua.

He did not rule out the possibility that the ammunition might have been melted due to the extreme heat from the explosion.

Tuesday's accident was the sixth deadly crash involving an Indonesian air force plane in the past decade, according to the Aviation Safety Network, prompting President Joko Widodo to call for a "fundamental overhaul" of the military's ageing equipment.

wahyudis@sph.com.sg