Grief, shock, hope: Anguished goodbyes after Indonesian plane crash

Mourners at the funeral of off-duty flight attendant Isti Yudha Prastika in Jakarta on Jan 16, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

DEPOK, INDONESIA (NYTIMES) - The mother didn't stop crying from the moment she arrived at the cemetery. In disbelief, she repeatedly clutched and kissed the wooden grave marker bearing the name of her daughter, Isti Yudha Prastika.

"Mama waits for you every day," she sobbed. "Why don't you return home?"

Ms Isti, 34, was an off-duty flight attendant with NAM Air, and one of 62 people aboard Sriwijaya Air Flight 182 when it hurtled into Indonesia's Java Sea minutes after take-off from Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta International Airport on Jan 9.

The authorities continue to piece together what happened to the 26-year-old Boeing 737-500. Answers could take months as investigators comb through the evidence of the latest aviation disaster in a country plagued with perilous skies.

For the families of the victims, the grief has been sharp and sudden. Closure will be slow as the answers trickle in, and worsened for many by the lack of a body or other remnants with which to say goodbye.

In its brief, final descent into the sea, the airliner plunged nearly 3,352m in 14 seconds. It struck the water with such force that searchers say finding remains is difficult. Ms Isti was buried last Saturday (Jan 16) in a closed coffin, rather than the traditional shroud, because searchers have recovered only partial remains of her body.

"All the bodies are in pieces, which is challenging for the recovery because they are buried in the mud and under the wreckage," said Mr Muhammad Yusuf Latif, a spokesman for Indonesia's search and rescue agency.

Search teams have brought ashore 313 body fragments so far. Forty people have so far been identified through fingerprints and DNA.

Divers continue to search for the memory unit of the plane's cockpit voice recorder, which broke apart on impact. The device's plastic casing, battery and acoustic signal beacon were all recovered separately. The plane's other so-called black box - the flight data recorder - was recovered intact last week.

Like many aboard the flight, Ms Isti ended up on the aircraft because of a sudden change in plans. In her case, her airline abruptly moved up her departure date so she could work on a different flight the following day, her family said.

Some travellers rearranged their schedules around the changing governmental Covid-19 test requirements, only to have their flights cancelled and end up on the doomed Boeing 737.

The plane was bound for the city of Pontianak on the island of Borneo, but was delayed because of heavy rain. The trip was scheduled to take about 90 minutes. It included a crew of six as well as six off-duty crew members from NAM Air, Sriwijaya's sister airline.

Of the 50 other passengers, 10 were children, including three infants.

Among those on board were three generations of a family travelling together: grandparents Toni Ismail and Rahmawati, both 59; their daughter, Ratih Windania, 32, who was five months pregnant; her daughter Yumna Fanisyatuzahra, three; and Ratih's nephew, Athar Rizki Riawan, eight.

Searchers lay body bags containing the remains of passengers in Jakarta on Jan 11, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Divers searching the wreckage found a small, pink Minnie Mouse sweatshirt that matched one belonging to Yumna, but her remains have yet to be identified.

Last Saturday, the family was notified that two of the victims, Toni and Rahmawati, had been identified and relatives were asked to come to the Kramat Jati National Police Hospital in East Jakarta, where forensic experts are working to identify remains recovered from the crash. Officials said the family would be given closed coffins.

"We haven't been told what remains were recovered," said Mr Yudi Qurbani, a cousin who helped represent the family at the hospital.

Mr Yudi Qurbani displays a photo of his family members who were killed in the crash. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Last Saturday, about 100 mourners came to the funeral of Ms Isti, the flight attendant, who was one of the first victims to be identified and buried.

Family members in the Muslim-majority country were not allowed to see the remains that were recovered and were given a closed coffin, depriving them of the Islamic ritual of washing the body. Normally, Muslims are buried in a shroud, not a coffin.

Ms Isti had worked for 15 years for various airlines, including an eight-year stint with Sriwijaya Air early in her career.

"Isti was a funny person," said her brother, Mr Billian Purnama Oktora, an architect. "She never got mad. She liked to make jokes. She was kind. And she was a role model for her nieces and nephews." Her mother, Iriyaningsih, was still shocked by the loss.

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