Rescue teams race to Indonesian plane crash site

Indonesian Minister of Transport Ignatius Jonan delivers a press conference on the Trigana Air accident at the Ministry of Transportation office in Jakarta, Indonesia on Sunday.
Indonesian Minister of Transport Ignatius Jonan delivers a press conference on the Trigana Air accident at the Ministry of Transportation office in Jakarta, Indonesia on Sunday.PHOTO: EPA

JAYAPURA, Indonesia (AFP) -  Rescuers battled on Monday to reach a remote, mountainous site in eastern Indonesia where debris has been spotted after a plane carrying 54 people and cash worth almost half a million US dollars crashed at the weekend.

The plane operated by Indonesian carrier Trigana Air lost contact with air traffic control on Sunday afternoon during a short flight in bad weather from Jayapura, capital of Papua province.

The ATR 42-300 twin-turboprop plane was carrying 49 passengers and five crew on the short flight to Oksibil, a remote settlement in the mountains to the south of Jayapura.

Also on the flight was 6.5 billion rupiah (S$650,000) in cash stored in four bags, which were government funds being transported by postal officials for distribution to poor families, said Haryono, head of the Jayapura post office, who goes by one name.

But the plane disappeared about 10 minutes before reaching its destination, shortly after it requested permission to start descending to land.


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

Officials said at the weekend that villagers had seen a plane crashing into a mountain not far from Oksibil, and had found wreckage. On Monday, the transport ministry said a search plane had also spotted wreckage in the area.

“Early this morning, a plane swept the route and sighted debris in an area near Oksibil, but we want to double-check now,” transport ministry spokesman J. A. Barata told AFP. 

Bambang Soelistyo, head of the search and rescue agency, told reporters in Jayapura that debris engulfed in smoke had been spotted from the air.

- Air and land search -

The search and rescue agency said another plane was being sent over the area to double-check and a search team was heading by foot to the mountainous crash site.

The team, which includes military, police, search and rescue personnel and local residents, will have to battle through dense, virgin forest to reach the site, which is at an altitude of about 2,600 metres, officials said.

“The area is steep and is covered by dense forests with thick moss. There is no road, no access at all, and our team have to go through this virgin forest to reach the location,” Papua military spokesman Teguh Pudji Rahardjo told AFP.

After the plane failed to land at the weekend, Trigana Air sent another flight over the area to hunt for it but the aircraft failed to spot anything due to bad weather.

Captain Beni Sumaryanto, Trigana Air’s service director of operations, said the weather was “very unpredictable” in the area where the plane went missing and that he believed bad conditions had caused the crash.

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 airline, has had a string of safety incidents and is banned from flying in European Union airspace.

Indonesia has suffered two major air accidents in the past year, including the AirAsia crash.

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.