JAKARTA, Indonesia — Search and rescue divers working in Indonesian waters heard regular “pings” in what authorities said Wednesday they hope will be the main body of the Lion Air plane that plunged into the Java Sea shortly after takeoff early Monday.
Muhammad Syaugi, head of the Indonesian national search-and-rescue agency, said he hoped to locate the main wreckage soon along with the flight recorder, widely known as the black box. But strong currents in the Java Sea have complicated the search.
The mission has swelled to almost 1,000 people. Divers widened the search area, pulling out heaps of debris, including life jackets and clothing. At one point, a remotely operated vehicle being used in the search was carried away by the current, officials said.
All 189 people on board are believed to have died in the crash.
Finding the main body of the aircraft, including the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder, would be a significant development for investigators, who are working to determine what caused the almost new Boeing jet to crash in good weather about 13 minutes after takeoff.
Danang Mandala Prihantoro, a spokesman for Lion Air, said Wednesday that the airline suspended its technical director, Muhammad Asif, at the direction of the Ministry of Transportation. An interim replacement was appointed to the position.
A team of engineers from Boeing was scheduled to arrive in Jakarta on Wednesday for meetings with Lion Air, according to Indonesia’s transportation safety committee.
One hundred divers were searching five areas off the coast of the island of Java, said Didi Hamzar, the national search-and-rescue agency’s director of preparedness, after a large, unknown object was detected underwater by an Indonesian naval vessel. So far, searchers have pulled belongings — including wallets, purses and phones — from the water, as well as body parts, but the plane’s fuselage remains missing.
Underscoring the intensity of the crash, searchers have only found parts of victims rather than intact bodies. A disaster-victim identification team had identified only one victim by Wednesday, a 24-year-old student from East Java, based on fingerprints and DNA samples. More than 50 body bags have been sent to a police hospital.
The twin-engine Boeing 737 Max 8 took off from Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport for the mining region of Pangkal Pinang early Monday. Just a few minutes into the flight, the pilot asked permission to return to the airport.
Radar showed the aircraft climbed and descended erratically and that its speed increased dramatically. The flight then lost contact with air traffic control.
Officials said it was too soon to identify the cause of the crash, which has puzzled experts. In the context of Indonesia’s patchy aviation safety record, however, lawmakers have started to call for a tightening of standards and a government-led audit of the country’s airlines.
Bambang Soesatyo, speaker of Indonesia’s House of Representatives, called on the government Wednesday to conduct an immediate inspection of all airlines operating in the country.
Indonesia — the world’s largest archipelago — is Southeast Asia’s biggest aviation market, according to the Center for Aviation, a travel market research company. But the country has suffered from safety oversights in the past.
Its airlines were banned from flying to the United States in 2007 because they were “deficient in one or more areas, such as technical expertise, trained personnel, record-keeping, or inspection procedures,” the Federal Aviation Administration said. The FAA lifted the ban in 2016 after the country’s airlines showed signs of improvement. The European Union similarly barred Indonesian carriers from flying into European airspace from 2007 until June.
Lion Air has been involved in a number of incidents in the past few years, but none with fatalities. One of its jets collided with a plane from another carrier, Wings Air, on the island of Sumatra last year, but no one was injured.
In 2013, a Lion Air flight crashed into the sea short of the airport runway on the resort island of Bali. Several people were injured, but no one was killed. Investigators determined that pilot error was the cause of that crash. The plane was also produced by the Chicago-headquartered Boeing and was just weeks old at the time of the accident.
Ainur Rohmah in Jakarta contributed to this report.