PANGKALAN BUN (Reuters/AFP) - Indonesia's military on Tuesday halted search and recovery efforts for an AirAsia passenger jet that crashed last month killing all 162 people on board, navy officials said.
"The operation has been ongoing for 30 days so the joint team has been pulled out," Rear Admiral Widodo, head of the navy's western fleet, told reporters. "We apologise to the families of the victims. We tried our best to look for the missing victims."
The navy, which has provided much of the personnel and equipment for the rescue effort, yesterday said it was withdrawing as the badly damaged fuselage was too difficult to lift and no more bodies had been located.
Rear-Adm Widodo, who is in charge of the search operation, told local television stations: "Our team has tried to scan for bodies and tried all means to assess this credibly, but we have only seen mud covering part of the fuselage and it appears to not contain any bodies."
The Airbus A320-200 vanished from radar screens on Dec 28, less than half way into a two-hour flight from Surabaya, Indonesia's second-biggest city, to Singapore. There were no survivors.
Seventy bodies have been recovered. The flight recorders have also been retrieved and are being analysed.
But days of rough weather and poor visibility have hampered navy divers' efforts to find more bodies and recover the fuselage of the plane. Widodo said no more victims had been found by divers involved in the search for the past two days.
Since Saturday, salvage teams have been using giant inflatable bags to try to raise the fuselage of the Airbus A320-200, which is lying in the sea at a depth of around 30 metres. At one point, they managed to lift the main body to the surface for two minutes before a sling holding it snapped.
The civilian National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas) said on Tuesday it may press on with the search for bodies. But its efforts will be hampered by the loss of the military's large vessels and heavy recovery equipment.
"Perhaps we will do regular operations with help from fishermen and communities near the coast to find other victims," Tatang Zaenuddin, Basarnas's deputy of operations, told Reuters. The agency will hold a news conference on Wednesday.
Imam Sampurno, who lost four family members on Flight QZ8501, none of whom has been found, said he was resigned to their fate. "We can only hope they will continue to search, but if it's stopped there is nothing I can do about it. I am resigned to it," he said.
Despite the military's withdrawal from the operation, Shukor Yusof, founder of aviation research firm Endau Analytics, said it would be surprising if authorities did not continue to salvage the aircraft.
"I think it would be very surprising if the salvage was not continued, knowing in fact that it's there," he told AFP. "I can't think of any previous aircraft incidents where they haven't tried to retrieve everything."
Indonesia's National Transportation Safety Committee will submit its initial findings on the crash this week to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The preliminary report, which the ICAO requires within 30 days of an accident, will include "information on the plane, the number of passengers and other information like that", NTSC investigator Suryanto told Reuters. But it will not include analysis of the two flight recorders.
Data from radar and the aircraft's two "black box" flight recorders will provide investigators with a clearer picture of what occurred during the final minutes of the flight. But investigators say they have yet to start their analysis as they have been compiling other data for the inquiry.
Transport Minister Ignasius Jonan told a parliamentary hearing last week that, based on radar data, the plane had climbed faster than normal in its final minutes, and then stalled. Investigators have found no evidence of foul play.
The NTSC will hold an annual media conference this week on its work over the past year but it is not expected to discuss details of its investigation of the AirAsia crash, said NTSC head Tatang Kurniadi. The final report on the crash, which will be made public, must be filed within a year.